by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

SEOUL, South Korea — Before he decided to become the best hurdler in the history of the world, Edwin Moses had plans to be a doctor. Can you imagine that?

“Look, Mrs. Johnson,” he would say to the worried mother, “your boy has a cold. Here’s our rehab regimen. Give him two glasses of water every 39 minutes, and see that his temperature stays under 99.2, and close the window in his room every evening at precisely 7 p.m. and open it at 6 a.m. and while you’re at it, why don’t you and your husband get out there and do some laps, maybe six 400-meter splits and five 800 meters, you’re looking flabby. Now, go.”

And you know what? That woman would listen. Because above all else, when you look into that bearded, bespectacled — and now internationally famous — face, you are left with one major impression: “I know what I am talking about.”

That he does.

Welcome back to the Olympic world of Edwin Moses. When we last left him, in Los Angeles, 1984, he was golden, far and away the best in the world, as he was in 1980, when the U.S. stayed home, and in 1976, when he won his first gold medal. Tonight, he goes for gold again. The 400-meter hurdles. He is still the best. And this is a rough business.

“You know, I can’t even recall what I was thinking in 1976 anymore,” Moses says now, sighing. “I’ve pretty much erased that from my memory banks. I was a student then. I couldn’t afford to be a full-time athlete. It’s so much different than today.” Today, it is true, Moses no longer need worry about money — his income from endorsements and appearance fees is solidly entrenched in the mid-six figures. It is also true that he still trains alone. Yes, he is a mega-star in Europe, mobbed by fans and pecked at by companies lusting after his handsome, hard-work image. He also listens to Miles Davis in his headphones before a race.

“Jazz,” he says, “relaxes me.”

I like the way Ed Moses moves. Especially when he’s off the track. He glides along in a graceful gait, almost regal, as if he should be surrounded by knights. I saw him the other day in an all-white cotton sweat suit, and I swear you could hear that sweat suit purring.

“There goes Moses,” someone will whisper, and half the time, it sounds as if Charlton Heston just walked by in his robe. He may be a notch less famous than Carl Lewis, but he’s also got half the headaches. And twice the respect.

If Lewis were an ABC miniseries, Moses would be a PBS special. He is nothing if not studied, careful, serious and even high-brow. And, unlike Lewis, Moses holds the world record in his event (47.02 seconds) along with the most impressive winning streak in his business, if not all of sports: 107 consecutive victories. Nine years, nine weeks and nine days (before he was edged last year by American Danny Harris).

Even Mike Tyson couldn’t do that.

All of which has made Moses a star among stars. “I am not staying in the athletes’ village this year,” he says, “for one reason. For me, the athletes’ village is Disneyland and I have to play the part of Mickey Mouse. Everybody wants to stop and talk or get an autograph. I had the same problem in 1984. Last week, at the Opening Ceremonies, I must have taken 1,000 or 1,500 pictures. I’d like to stay in the village, but it’s not feasible because of my popularity with other athletes of the world.”

Well. Now. Let’s be honest. If Lewis said that, we’d fry him. And yet somehow, when Moses says it, in that careful, deep monotone, you don’t get upset. It’s like listening to a nuclear scientist tell you he can’t be home for dinner because something is about to break in the lab. If Edwin Moses skips out on the village, it’s because he plans on working. Late. Which is something he has always done. At 33, with that long, lean body and the face of a college chemistry professor, he shouldn’t be able to win the most exhausting race in track. He shouldn’t be able to fly over those 10 grueling hurdles and sprint that last 40 meters and never — except for two bad races in 1987 — see the backside of a competitor.

But he does. “I am trying to defeat the aging process,” he confesses. “I’ve been able to avoid injuries. I work with a physical therapist and a masseuse to try and keep this body working. I study things. That’s a big reason why I’m here.”

And because Moses is on the frontier of his sport, he considers all the world a source of input. He has worked with a Finnish specialist when he thought there was something to learn. He has checked out sports medicine laboratories from Munich to Colorado Springs, studied film, wired himself up, broken down his athletic feats to a computer science. He does not rule out a final Olympic moment in Barcelona, 1992, and if he makes it — at age 37, a hurdler, is he crazy? — it will be because he knows more than anybody else.

Which has always been an image that suits him. Here is the kid who paid attention in class when everyone else was throwing spitballs. Here is the loner, the last guy in the library on Friday night, who then goes out, buys the motorcycle, gets the girl and never explains a thing. He is Dewars Scotch profile material, the one National Public Radio comes after first. He shrugs at those who don’t understand him and never bothers with an explanation. “I think I’ve gone farther,” he says, again without a hint of self-consciousness,
“than most athletes will go or would want to go.”

“Who would you like to be if you could be anyone in sports?” a reporter asked him the other day.

“I would like to be myself,” he said.

You know the best Edwin Moses performance I ever saw? In 1984, during the Opening Ceremonies. Remember? He had been chosen — largely because of the enormous work he has done to bring track and field into the 20th century, financially and bureaucratically — to deliver the athlete’s oath. He didn’t want to read from a piece of paper, so he memorized it. And then, in front of a billion people watching worldwide, he forgot the words. Just forgot them. Got halfway through and froze.

And what did he do? Like any good scientist caught in a snag, he went back to the last piece of data. He repeated the previous line, once, twice, three times into the microphone . . . and finally, the next words came back to him.

The entire time, he never said the word “um.”

That’s impressive.

So it should not surprise you if Moses wins again tonight, gets that unprecedented third gold medal in an event that should have whipped him years ago. He has less hair now, but more desire. And lots more experience. “At the Olympic trials, people were saying age will take care of Edwin Moses,” he says with a chuckle, “but I don’t think I’ve gotten a whole lot older the last two months.”

Tonight, he tries to prove it. And I think he will. Besides, with all this Olympic work, I’ve noticed that my throat is getting a little sore, and because this is a foreign country, I’m thinking, after his race, I might just ask Edwin Moses, who was going to be a doctor, what he recommends. And you know what?

I bet he has an answer.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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