Track's toughest race
Glory comes and goes fast for those who run 400-meter hurdles
Posted: Tuesday July 27, 2004 1:47PM; Updated: Tuesday July 27, 2004 2:49PM
Ever wondered which track event is toughest? The cruelest, most humbling race? One that puts gold medallists in mothballs faster than any other?
If so, we offer up our modest opinion: the 400-meter hurdles. We say this having chronicled the rise and fall of Olympic champions Kevin Young (Barcelona, '92) and Derrick Adkins (Atlanta,'96). Try as they might, neither earned a shot at defending their Olympic title.
Young's world record from Barcelona (46.78) still stands, but four years later he failed to make it to the finals at the Olympic Trials. Adkins was equally out-classed at the trials for Sydney, and again earlier this month in Sacramento. Neither could fight their way past a first-round race.
That brings us to Sydney gold medallist Angelo Taylor, who qualified second for Athens at the recent trials. Taylor has been unspectacular since the 2000 Games, but he's still the first to return in defense of his Olympic championship since Edwin Moses in 1988 -- though Taylor's 48.03 clocking in Sacramento wasn't jaw dropping.
So what's up with the sudden, almost sad fade from glory?
"It takes so much strength, stamina and endurance to run the event that it is hard to keep that up," offers Adkins. "The only person that could was Edwin Moses, and he was out of the ordinary."
When reached by telephone in London, where he was making a recent appearance for the Laureus World Sports Academy, Moses took a few pointed jabs at the modern athlete's training methods. But again, Moses, who was a pre-Med major at Morehouse, always has been a different, deeply cerebral character.
Self-coached, Moses hadn't run an international race before winning gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Yet he managed to put together a streak right up there with Joe DiMaggio's and Cal Ripken's, going unbeaten in 122 races from 1977-87.
Moses possessed deceptive speed, though he didn't do a ton of speed work like most 400-meter hurdlers. Instead, he trained more like of a distance runner. Workouts typically included repeat runs of 800 meters. By his estimate, he had logged upwards of 1,000 miles a year on the roads, beaches and golf courses.
"A lot of the guys now are 400/200 type of runners," says Moses, chairman of Laureus, an international program that provides sports opportunities for young people. "I don't think, being a 400-meter runner, you can sustain long-term performance in the event with just speed type of training. No one has ever been able to do it. So I think it is harder for them to stay in condition year round, especially for big meets, end-of-season major competitions and things."
Of course, Moses faults the current generation for focusing short term, for being driven by immediate success. The first thought is to brush him off as a grumpy ex-jock stuck in the past. The problem is he's still in great shape. He intended to run at the recent trials in a bid to draw attention to Laureus, but he was sidelined by a knee injury.
What really hits home is that his career-best clocking (47.02 in 1983 at age 27) is still the second-fastest time in history behind Young's 46.78 at the Barcelona Olympics. The times Moses routinely ran almost 30 years ago are as fast or faster than those of the top athletes today, such as Olympic favorite Felix Sanchez.
Sanchez, who competes for the Dominican Republic, is an interesting character to watch in Athens. The two-time World Champion could end the American dominance in the event, yet he was born in New York to Dominican parents, has lived in the U.S. for his entire life and ran collegiately for Southern Cal. He took up running for the Dominican Republic after a sixth-place showing at the 1999 U.S. championships failed to earn him a spot on the World Championship team.
But even Sanchez hasn't approached the standards set by Moses a generation ago.
"I think with this whole influx into immediacy -- everyone is short term in their outlook," Moses says. "I made a tremendous commitment by not being able to go to medical school and not finishing all that I wanted to do in my engineering career. So I put everything into track and field. And just the passion I have for the sport, I never imagined I would be as good as I was. Once I realized I was that great, I put everything into maintaining it."
How dominant was he? Moses won gold at the 1976 Montreal Games and eight years later in Los Angeles, followed by bronze at the 1988 Seoul Games. You can make a strong case that Moses would have captured three straight gold medals had it not been for the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He set a world record of 47.13 three weeks before those Games, in which East German Volker Beck won in 48.70 -- the slowest winning time since 1964.
"Without a doubt, I would have [won], short of falling or being disqualified or something like that," suggested Moses. "That is a mediocre time for me. That is exhibition type of running."
Excuse him if it sounds like bragging, but he's right.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.