Work in Sports
SI Flashback: Gold Standard
Once going nowhere fast, sprinter Maurice Greene has found his stride, smashed the 100-meter world record and set his sights on Olympic stardom
By Tim Layden
Issue date: June 28, 1999
Once going nowhere fast, sprinter Maurice Greene has found his stride, smashed the 100-meter world record and set his sights on Olympic stardom On Mondays, Maurice Greene makes a speech. He stands among his training brethren on the pebbled red rubber of the UCLA running track and, before opening his mouth, momentarily considers the alternatives to running fast for a living. He thinks about the dead-end jobs he has held: slopping fast food at more franchises than he can recall, emptying trucks at a warehouse loading dock, hot-walking smelly greyhounds at a dog track, tearing tickets at a movie theater. The list goes on. He remembers that in the spring of 1997, nine months after moving from his native Kansas City, Kans., to Los Angeles to seek sprint greatness at age 22, he grimly opened the classified section of the Los Angeles Times in search of another lousy job because he was ready to call his track career a failure. The memories pass in a blur. His perspective firmly in place, Greene then spreads his arms in the manner of an evangelical preacher and delivers a short, heartfelt homily in free verse:
Greene is neither poet nor rapper. But know this: His words flow straight from the soul of the world's fastest man. Desk? Traffic? Been there and worse. "I've had bad jobs," says Greene. "Now I have a good one. I'm thankful." Now it's evening, after the sermon and the spirited workout that followed. Greene is hunched over the dining room table in his five-bedroom home in Granada Hills, north of Los Angeles. One of Greene's houseguests is watching a movie on the 120-inch projection television, replete with plaster-peeling DVD system. Greene loves to watch loud movies, like Top Gun and Scarface. Fast ones, too. "I've watched Ben on that screen," says Greene, nodding. "I've watched him lots of times."
Ben would be Ben Johnson, the disgraced Jamaican-born Canadian who won the 100 meters at the 1988 Seoul Olympics in an unthinkable world record of 9.79 seconds, only to be stripped of his gold medal -- and the record -- when he tested positive for a steroid. Seoul transformed Johnson into a pariah, a symbol of the dirty track athlete. Yet to sprinters, 9.79 became a grail, digits disembodied from the man and his methods. "Ben ran that time," says '92 Olympic champion Linford Christie of Great Britain. "Start to finish, nine-point-seven-nine."
Greene looked hard at those numbers, too. In the two years since he nearly quit sprinting and sought other employment, he had matured into the best sprinter in the world. He won the 100 at the 1997 world championships, beating world-record holder Donovan Bailey of Canada in 9.86 seconds and narrowly failing to break Bailey's world record of 9.84 from the Atlanta Olympics. As he prospered, Greene hungered still more for the record. In '98 he and training partner Ato Boldon of Trinidad promised almost daily that the mark would fall. Outsiders endorsed the goal but not the boast. "When Maurice stops talking about breaking the record, he's going to do something stupid fast," said Mike Holloway, who coaches sprinters at Florida and has worked with '92 Olympic bronze medalist Dennis Mitchell.
This year Greene and Boldon promised to attack the record with their feet and not their tongues. They might as well have promised to stop breathing. "I intend to break the world record," Greene said on this spring night. And more: "Me and Ato talk about Ben's race," he said. "It was obvious he was into something, but aside from that, the things he did, the times he hit along the way, were just incredible. I can run 9.79. I know I can."
He could not have known how soon. On the evening of June 16, in the same Athens Olympic stadium in which he won the world title two years ago, Greene ripped through a windless dusk and matched Johnson's 9.79, demolishing Bailey's world record and tearing more from the 100 mark than had been taken off in a single bite since the onset of automatic timing more than three decades ago. Far from overwhelmed, Greene was struck by the ease of the effort. "No way I thought it was that fast," he said upon returning to the U.S. last Friday. "It felt real easy. I believe the record will go down again this season. This is only the beginning."
In truth it's more like the middle. The beginning came less than a week after his flirtation with Help Wanted, when Greene went to Indianapolis for the 1997 national championships. Not only was his athletic psyche in tatters, but his emotions were also shredded after the deaths of an aunt and a grandfather in the previous week. Yet Greene's coach, John Smith, the man he went west to study under, sensed that Greene was on the edge of a breakthrough. Smith went to Greene's hotel room and embraced him. "This is the time to dig down and find something in yourself," Smith said. "You're ready to run fast. Go out and do it, and when you see the time, act like you expected it."
Early the next evening Greene exploded from the blocks in a preliminary round of the 100 meters and opened a huge lead before shutting down his engines 15 meters from the finish and coasting across the line. His time of 9.96 seconds was .12 faster than he had ever run and put him among the world's best. "I could feel my eyes get huge," recalls Greene, "but I had to hold it in. Man, it was hard." At last the lightbulb was illuminated. The want ads were flushed.
The next night Greene won his first national title, in a scorching 9.90, making him then the third-fastest American in history, behind Leroy Burrell (9.85) and Carl Lewis (9.86). Less than two months later Greene stunned Bailey in Athens. It has only gotten better. In just his third season of elite competition, Greene has laid a foundation to become the most accomplished 100-meter man in history (box, previous page). He has broken 10 seconds for the 100 meters 17 times, twice more than Lewis did in his 17-year international career and only nine times fewer than alltime leader Frankie Fredericks of Namibia, who has been competing at a high level for a decade. Of the 26 times of 9.93 seconds or faster run by Americans, Greene has the most, nine. (Lewis has six; Burrell and Mitchell have three apiece.) He has run seven of the 10 fastest times in U.S. history. "He's the best right now. Everybody's chasing Maurice," says sprinter Brian Lewis, a member of the '97 U.S. team at the worlds.
"What surprises me is his consistency," says Burrell, who retired after the 1997 season. "Lots of people run fast once or twice, but Greene is on a three-year run. People have no idea how difficult that is."
Greene lacks only an Olympic gold medal to gild his resume. No small matter, this, but barring injury, Greene will be the heavy favorite in the 100 not only at this summer's world championships in Seville (where he will also attempt the 200 and probably anchor the American 4x100 relay team), but also at next year's Olympics in Sydney. There are many races in the interim -- including a 200 summit meeting with world-record holder Michael Johnson at this weekend's nationals in Eugene, Ore. -- but gold in Sydney is the only real goal left. "Everyone is coming after me now," says Greene. "Fine, let them keep on coming. I'm the fastest man in the world, no doubt. I think about Sydney, and I can't wait. I just can't wait."
In a small room on the ground floor of the field house on the campus of Kansas City Kansas Community College (KCKCC) one afternoon last month, Al Hobson pushed a tape into a VCR and punched the PLAY button. A 58-year-old former Marine who worked for 29 years as an auto parts buyer for General Motors, Hobson loves coaching young sprinters, which he has done for more than two decades. Greene joined Hobson's Kansas City Chargers track club at age eight. "That's Maurice," said Hobson, putting a finger on the screen. A skinny 16-year-old with a high fade tore down the straightaway and laid waste to a 100-meter field at a regional AAU meet. The image switched to a van ride home. Greene pulled medals from a knapsack on the floor and draped them around his neck. "I won one, two, three, four.... I won four gold medals and set one record," he shouted, mugging for the lens.
"That's Maurice, too," whispered Hobson, smiling. "Same kid. Always that way."
For almost 23 years Greene lived in a circle whose outer edge was no more than 20 miles from the center of Kansas City. He grew up the youngest of four children, three of them sons, born to Ernest and Jackie Greene. Maurice's brother Ernest, now 29, was the first promising sprinter in the family and would eventually run 10.24 for the 100 and reach the semifinals of the 1992 Olympic trials. Ernest brought Maurice to Hobson, and Hobson guided Maurice to countless AAU youth titles and three consecutive 100-200 doubles for Schlagle High in the Kansas state championships. (Maurice added a win in the 400 as a senior.) Maurice idolized Carl Lewis and vowed someday to beat him.
A poor ACT score scared off most college football and track recruiters, which was fine with Greene. He had received a Project Choice scholarship that would pay for his schooling wherever he went, and he was not all that interested in collegiate competition anyway. Homesick at the mere thought of leaving the Kansas City area, he attended Park College in nearby Parkville, Mo., and KCKCC and continued to train with Hobson, which seemed an inspired decision when in 1995 Greene qualified for both the indoor and outdoor worlds and, as promised, beat Lewis, in their first meeting, at the Texas Relays. However, the Olympic year, '96, was a disaster. Greene injured his right hamstring in April and never fully recovered that season. He bombed out of the U.S. trials in the second round, couldn't get himself into any European races and sulked around his hometown, finding his workouts stale and sensing that he needed a change.
It would be a painful break. When Maurice was a teenager, his mother agreed to raise a niece's five sons, aged four months to five years. The Greene house overflowed. Maurice often slept at Hobson's. "He became like a son to me and my wife," says Hobson. Then on Sept. 26, 1996, Greene departed for L.A. "I had to leave," he says. "I was at the point in my workouts where I knew what Hop was going to say before he said it. I needed something different."
Maurice drove with his father from Kansas City to Los Angeles in his GMC Jimmy, the two splitting time at the wheel. On his first day in Los Angeles, Maurice drove to UCLA, sat by the track and waited for Smith to arrive. "So you want to run fast?" Smith said upon seeing Greene.
"Yes, I do," Greene answered.
However, in nine torturous months, he only ran more slowly. Smith broke Greene down with punishing workouts and tested his resolve with withering soliloquies. "There were times when Maurice just stood all by himself out on the infield because he didn't want anybody to see him crying," says Boldon, who had been coached by Smith for three years when Greene arrived. In the evening Boldon would take Greene back to his house and review videotape of the day's practice, helping Greene derive some good from Smith's hectoring.
Away from the track Greene subsisted on a $20,000 shoe contract from Nike. He borrowed money from Boldon and from his manager, Emanuel Hudson. He lived rent-free with J.B. Hill, a charitable man 25 years his senior who had played high school basketball with Hobson.
Once Greene found his groove, mixing natural speed -- "Can't make tuna salad without the tuna," says Smith. "Maurice was born fast" -- with Hobson's foundation and Smith's precise mechanics, he developed a low, efficient style that repeats itself like a great golf swing. There are few moving parts and little wasted energy.
As good as his body is, Greene's head is better. In the summer of 1995, when Greene was a wide-eyed 20-year-old on his first European tour, he met up with the seasoned Mitchell for a series of three all-out 150-meter sprints on a track in Monte Carlo. Mitchell, a voracious trainer, left Greene puking on the grass after the first two and offered to let him quit before finishing. Greene stood, wiped the vomit from his mouth and beat Mitchell on the last sprint. Two years later, at the worlds in Athens, Bailey messed with Greene's head through two days of preliminary rounds, but Greene emerged to win convincingly in the final. "Nothing that comes down the road seems to affect him," says Burrell.
Boldon, who runs against Greene virtually every day and will most likely be his principal opponent in the worlds and the Olympics, says, "Maurice Greene is the most competitive human being I've ever known. Off the track, he's fun-loving, with all that Midwestern 'Yes, ma'am, no, sir' stuff. But on it, it's a hell of a contrast. He's tough. I've gotten tougher just being around him."
Greene's home in a Brady Bunch neighborhood has become a de facto dormitory for Hudson's and Smith's HSI club members. (HSI is officially registered as "HS International" and informally called "Handling Speed Intelligently.") Consider it fair repayment. HSI, which was formed by Hudson and Smith in 1996, is a thriving enclave of 20 athletes that has provided Greene with stability when he needed it most. "Like a family," Greene says.
One spring night Greene's "family" was scattered about the house. Hurdler Larry Wade sat at Greene's computer, lost in a chat room; hurdler Anjanette Kirkland wrote letters at the kitchen table; and sprinter Curtis Johnson soaked up the DVD. The house is plenty big enough for all of them to visit frequently. (Track and field may be struggling for survival in the U.S., but with prize money and appearance fees, most of them earned in Europe, and endorsement contracts, a sprinter of Greene's class can still get wealthy, which Greene has.)
On the wall of Greene's office is a framed verse that he reads daily and believes:
Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up and it knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn't matter if you're a lion or a gazelle, when the sun comes up, you better be running.
Greene and Wade are driving to dinner now, with the top down on Greene's black Mercedes 500SL, the one with the MO GOLD vanity plates. The world's fastest man drives accordingly. At a stoplight, the stereo causes nearby soccer moms to cringe behind the windows of their SUVs. Greene and Wade begin bouncing to the music. They are young and fast, running when the sun comes up. Not behind no desk.
Issue date: June 28, 1999