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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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Whereas Lewis caught—and fought—track during a transitional phase, when it was seeking to shuck the hypocrisy of amateurism, Greene is really the first all-pro World's Fastest Human. He still must deal with a sport that remains marketing-deficient (even in Europe) and antediluvian in so many other respects. Surely no sport has entered the 21st century if it still features those rinky-dink number bibs that are sold to advertisers as billboards by meet promoters and attached to all track jerseys. Imagine Pete Sampras having to take safety pins—safety pins!—and affix a tacky paper ID number to his shirt before he heads onto Centre Court.

Masback even believes the metric system in track inhibits its popularity in nonmetric America. "The 40-yard distance they use in football scouting is probably better known now in the U.S. than the 100 meters," he says. Always, too, there is the specter of drugs, track's one Horseman of the Apocalypse. Who knows how prevalent doping is? "It's not true that everyone does it," says Lewis. "Maybe 10 percent, but you get to the finals of some event, then it's five out of eight." Masback protests that the U.S., with random testing, has greatly reduced drug use among its runners, and that they are getting a bum rap. Regardless, the perception of rampant doping remains, so much of corporate America shies away from associating with track. Also, given human nature, whoever is on top bears the greatest suspicion.

"So we're the whipping boys in track today," Smith snaps. "I'm used to that talk about HSI. It's like the stigma of being black. But if they're whispering that we're succeeding because of drugs, then we've already won, because that means they don't believe they can beat us. We are pure of body, mind and soul. We've endured the most stringent of tests. Mo's been tested three times in a week, but we're still running the fastest. That's because of our belief system—not any pharmacology."

Most of the World's Fastest Humans have had short shelf lives. This had largely to do with the shamateur nature of the sport and the emphasis on the Olympics, which forced track stars to quit training and get a job even when they had their best races left in them. Who remembers Jim Hines, gold medalist at Mexico City in 1968, the first man to crack 10 seconds in the 100 meters? He abandoned the track to join the Miami Dolphins, for whom he played for one season and then disappeared from view. Lewis is the only 100-meter repeat gold medalist and one of the few "speed demons," as we used to call them, who sustained their fame. It would be melodramatic to suggest that World's Fastest Humans are jinxed, but few have prospered for long. Wyomia Tyus, the World's Fastest Woman in the '60s, observed, "The world isn't attuned to sprinters. We're around, flashy and successful for a year or two. Then we're gone, while the world goes on being run by plodders."

Bobby Joe Morrow, the triple gold medalist (100, 200 and 4 x 100 relay in Melbourne in 1956), was literally left at the airport as the 1960 U.S. team departed for Rome, informed only then that, as an alternate, he would not be going, and he remains bitter about it to this day. Harold Abrahams, the 1924 gold medalist, was—wouldn't you know it?—barely dead when Chariots of Fire made him world famous. Jesse Owens, of course, became a saintly figure because he showed up Hitler, but a fat lot of good that did him back in the land of the free and the home of the brave. He was accused of letting his country down because he didn't enter foreign races that the Amateur Athletic Union had decreed he should run in (without pay, naturally). Owens left Ohio State to take advantage of his moment in the sun, then bemoaned his lack of real opportunity: "Everybody wanted to meet me, but no one wanted to offer me a job." Further, when he tried to take advantage of his symbolic status, other blacks derided him as America's "official Negro"; Harry Edwards, the Berkeley sociology professor, even disparaged Owens as "a bootlicking Uncle Tom."

Paddock, who had been Owens's childhood hero, unsuccessfully tried to persuade him to remain an amateur, arguing that he could make more money under the table. Paddock knew whereof he spoke; he had profited handsomely that way in the '20s. Indeed, until Lewis in the 1980s, Paddock was the most entrepreneurial sprinter. He was pretty much his own p.r. man, and he would run races over odd distances, establishing records willy-nilly. His amours also kept him in the news. He was engaged to a movie star, Bebe Daniels, and later made the columns when he broke up with another actress, one Madeline Lubetty, who sued Paddock (the cad), demanding $100,000 as what was called in those innocent times "a heart balm."

Prefiguring the outspoken Lewis, Paddock feuded with the simon-pure track pooh-bahs. They had a conniption when he starred in a movie—The Olympic Hero—getting paid pretty much to play himself. He was suspended twice for breaking rules against making money. Like Lewis, though, Paddock never was silenced. He even began one bylined newspaper article, "Shooting is too good for these officials...."

In the end Paddock suffered the worst—and most sadly ironic—fate of all those in the Fastest club. He'd served on the front lines in France during World War I as an 18-year-old second lieutenant and escaped without a scratch. Then, as a captain in World War II, far from any action, he was a passenger on a military plane that crashed, and Charlie Paddock was dead at age 42.

Still, of all the Fastest, Bullet Bob Hayes has experienced the greatest extremes. Born into segregation, he became the nation's heroic gold-medalist sprinter in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, an All-Pro in football, then an alcoholic and a convict. Now he sits in his mother's house in Jacksonville, essentially reborn twice, of body and spirit. When he was paroled from prison in February 1980, wags said it proved he was the World's Fastest Human, since he did five years in 10 months. But now Hayes really does seem to have outrun both the devil and death.

Last year, at age 59, he suffered from prostate cancer, pneumonia and a weakened heart. His lower body swelled with 73 extra pounds of fluid, and his heart at one point slowed to 12 beats a minute. "That's like dead," he says succinctly. The doctors even told Hayes's sister, Lena Johnson, that they could not do anything more for him. Somehow he recovered, and as he sits among a scatter of hundreds of get-well letters and prayer cards, his legs jiggle constantly, nervously, his sockless sneakered feet shifting as if at any moment he might lift them again and dash out the door.

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