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Time Bandits
Frank Deford
August 06, 2001
Maurice Greene is the latest holder of the grand and curious title World's Fastest Human, bestowed on men who have stolen fractions of seconds from the 100-meter record
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August 06, 2001

Time Bandits

Maurice Greene is the latest holder of the grand and curious title World's Fastest Human, bestowed on men who have stolen fractions of seconds from the 100-meter record

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Appearances support this view. Greene is 5'9" and weighs 175 pounds. In repose at home he is almost cute, not at all resembling that powerful, hulking creature that preys upon the track, exhibiting such a sense of supremacy. He did not even make the 1996 Olympics and nearly quit the sport, but a few weeks after the Games he drove from his Kansas City home to Los Angeles to work under John Smith, the renowned sprint coach. When Smith rather casually inquired, "What do you want to do?" Greene baldly replied, "I want to put American track and field on my shoulders."

Smith, 51, who held the 400-meter world record in 1971, is a proud match for his premier student. "In every great sprinter, God left one thing out," he declares.

What did God leave out of Mo, John?

"Me."

In addition to Smith, two circumstances—one personal, one institutional—have shaped Greene. For the most part our fastest sprinters have been groomed in college. Greene, except for dallying awhile in a community college, enjoyed no intermediate status. "He went directly from high school to the international stage," says Craig Masback, CEO of USA Track & Field. "That's a much bigger jump than some NBA star makes."

Then, there is this: Greene, like all American track stalwarts, has learned that he is a prophet without honor in his own land. World's Fastest Human he may be—and, by his own assessment, "a rock star" in much of Europe and Asia—but he possesses a low Q rating in the U.S.A., especially in any year that is not divisible by four. Lewis has been retired five years and was last World's Fastest a decade ago, but many Americans think he still reigns.

Unfortunately for Greene, many of his countrymen recall him primarily as one of the four Ugly Americans who hoo-hawed and pranced about, rolling around in red-white-and-blue, after they had won the 4 x 100 relay at Sydney. In fact, it was Greene's teammates who were guilty of the grossest exhibitionism. "They were just kids—kids from the ghetto who'd never been in a situation like that before," Smith says. "So they overdid it, they acted like buffoons." Greene, however, wasn't much more exuberant than when he'd won the 100 on his own. Nevertheless, because track has such low visibility in the U.S., that singular moment from the Olympics prevails in most memories.

But no. Look over there now, in the midnight shadows, sitting silently on the curb—there is a more representative Mo Greene. It is mid-June, and fireworks are going off, signaling the end of the Grand Prix meet in Athens, at the stadium where the track events of the 2004 Games will be held. It was also here, four years ago, that Greene first won the world championship, and on this track in 1999 that he sped to the finish in 9.79 seconds, which is the fastest anyone created in the image of God has ever negotiated 100 meters...clean. ( Ben Johnson also ran a 9.79, in 1988, but it was expunged from the record book after he tested positive for steroids.)

Greene has been the ballyhooed star of this year's meet, paid much the highest appearance fee. But now the show is over, and the promoters have forgotten their meal ticket. There is no car to take the World's Fastest Human through the horrendous Athens traffic back to his hotel. One can imagine almost any other U.S. sports hero's reaction to such a revolting development: sullen, stomping about, ordering his do-boys to commandeer a stretch. But Mo sits patiently on the curb in the dark, and when his manager, Emmanuel Hudson, finally scares up a car, Greene refuses to let it depart before he has jammed in a passel of teammates, all around him and on his lap.

The kid from Kansas City remains grateful. Even if he has not broken his record this night, even if he has managed only 9.91 (which he, of such high standards, characterizes as a time that "sucks"), the World's Fastest Human makes millions of dollars a year, and if he is not famous in Cincinnati, he is in Osaka. He is rich and he is Nike and he is happy. Only a day earlier, ambling off the practice track in Athens, Greene had suddenly thrown up his arms and screamed, "I love this sport! I love my teammates! I love all the things that go with my sport!" Then he dashed around a corner and up a hill, running just for the joy of it.

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