ROME — The images flashed across the electronic scoreboard atop Olympic stadium; three men, leaning . . . at . . . the . . . tape . . .
“MOSES, SI!” someone yelled.
“NO! HARRIS!” someone countered.
“SCHMID!” claimed another.
Blip. It started over. With each replay, the crowd grew quiet. It watched as Edwin Moses, Harald Schmid and Danny Harris moved in slow motion down the stretch, and then leaning . . . at . . . the . . . tape . . .
Blip. Moses? Harris? Schmid? Who could tell? This World Championship showdown was the closest major race in the history of the 400 meter hurdles. The closest. The fastest. The best. Blip. Blip. Again and again.
Who could tell? Down on the track, the three men were scattered, searching for breath. Harris, who would set a personal best, thought he had won. Schmid, who would tie his personal best, thought he had won. And then a roar went up, the decision was in, and the cameramen swarmed to the bearded man with the gap-toothed smile.
Moses had won. By two-hundredths of a second. By a lean . . . at . . . the
. . . tape . . .
‘That was the toughest’
What are the odds of that? What are the odds of the three best competitors, in three consecutive lanes, racing around a quarter-mile track, negotiating 10 hurdles, charging down the straightaway, and finishing within inches?
“That was the toughest race you’ve ever seen,” Moses would say later, of a classic he had led until the last hurdle, when he tired and his rivals pulled even. “That was the toughest, that was the best.”
“Were you sure you won when you crossed the line?” someone would ask.
“You’re never sure in a race like that.”
How could anyone be sure? Even after the official results were announced
— 1) Moses, 47.46, 2) Harris 47.48, 3) Schmid, 47.48 — Danny Harris stood anxiously in front of an outdoor TV monitor, his hand cupped around his chin. He watched the replay once. He scratched his head and watched it again. He leaned down on one knee and watched it again. He turned, walked away a few steps, then spun back and watched it again.
“You’re not convinced?” asked Dwight Stones, the high jumper- turned-TV announcer.
“Uh-uh,” Harris said, shaking his head.
Inside the stadium corridor, Schmid conferred with several West German reporters. He replayed what he thought had happened. Again and again.
“You think you won?” they asked him.,
“I won, no way I didn’t win,” he said.
How long had they waited for this chance? Harris, 21, had finally beaten Moses this summer — once — stopping his incredible winning streak at 122 races. But that was at a small meet in Madrid, and Moses claims he wasn’t in top shape.
And Schmid? Lord. Hadn’t Schmid been waiting forever? He was the last man to beat Moses before Harris. That was 1977. He has been trying for 10 years to do it again. Ten years! Today he was there. Breathing on Moses. Feeling his heat. “It was so close,” he would say. “It was one, two, three. . . . Nobody knew what happened.”
‘I’ve created a monster’
When the photo finish was released, it was indeed clear what had happened: Moses had won — by a chest. The three men were escorted into an interview room and seated behind a single table. Even here, they were farther apart than they had been at the line.
“Did you realize how close it was?” someone asked Moses. “Did you ever think you lost?”
“I knew they were right behind me,” he said. “I knew it was close. Fortunately, in this game, two hundredths is as good as two meters.”
Two-hundredths. Remarkable. Even Ben Johnson’s world-record win over Carl Lewis was a tenth of a second — and that was the 100 meters. There was a time when second and third placers didn’t deserve the same table as Moses; he won that easily. But he is 32 now, and fame has brought more challengers. “I’m getting older, they’re getting better. The whole event is improving so fast. If I can say it — I’ve created a monster.”
With that, Harris finally grinned and shook his head. Schmid could only shrug and admit he was used to it. The losers shook hands, and took solace in their excellent performance times.
“I’m definitely going to compete in Seoul (the 1988 Olympics) next year,” Moses announced, “and then, who knows? Maybe I’ll even stick around to Barcelona in 1992. You never can tell.”
And with that, he departed, leaving his rivals to lick their chops. Next time, maybe no lean? Next time, maybe a different result? Who knows? Next time is next time. This time everybody left smarter; Moses knowing how close the world was getting, Harris and Schmid knowing how far close can really be.