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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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It's an unusual title, World's Fastest Human. The human is the kicker. That has a special ring to it. Most times, when employing definitive terms to designate superiority in our favored species, it's the Something Man or maybe the Something Woman. The World's Strongest Man, for example. Even in sideshows, the freaks were half-man, half-animal, or half-man, half-bird. They were not half-human. No, the World's Fastest, human division, stands pretty much alone. Maybe because the resolution is so precise: First one to the finish line wins. On your mark, get set, go. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine...and change. The title is determined by minuscule but indisputable fractions.

"I'll tell you this," says Bob Hayes, who was the World's Fastest Human not so long ago, "once you become that, you can only go down."

Although we have always had fastest humans, the best evidence is that we've had the World's Fastest Human for only 80 years. We don't know who coined the title, but apparently it was first applied to Charlie Paddock, in the spring of 1921, after he ran the 100 yards in 9.6 seconds in Berkeley, Calif. Paddock was quite a fellow. He was the 1920 Olympic champion in the 100 meters and was known to down a sherry and a raw egg before a race. On the cinders he was partial to wearing silk. Superstitious, he knocked on every wooden thing he could find on his way to the starting line, and then he engaged in a studied ritual, putting his hands way out in front, then drawing them back. It could be distracting, especially if you were in the lane next to him. At the other end of the race he finished by throwing himself into the air as the tape loomed. Off the track, too, Charlie Paddock was a fascinating piece of work.

"You mean I can't live up to him?" asks Maurice Greene, the latest in the line of World's Fastest Humans. He is altogether a different sort from the original. The myth persists that the fastest sprinters are all of a type—arrogant and gunslingers are the most favored epithets—but the evidence doesn't support that hackneyed assessment. Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell were, for example, teammates and friends as well as rivals for years. However, apart from the fact that they were, in succession, the World's Fastest Human, they seemed to have nothing in common. Lewis was thin, shrill and controversial. Burrell was stocky, reserved and conventional. He has become a college coach; Lewis, an aspiring movie actor.

Ever deductive, Lewis explains whence he thinks the bogus sprinters' image derives. "A lot of it comes from the fact that we don't stay together that much," he says. "Pole vaulters are always together, talking about their poles. Who else can they talk to? And the weight guys, they're all on drugs, so they have that in common to talk about. Distance runners run together—I mean, it's so boring, all that running. But no matter how close I was to my teammates, even if we'd drive to a meet together, then we'd split up. I suppose that made us look arrogant. Some sprinters do think we're knockout punchers. They think they have to get into your head and all that stuff. I hate that."

Not unlike the odd couple of Lewis and Burrell, today we have Greene and Ato Boldon of Trinidad, his teammate on HSI, the Irvine, California-based firm that represents two dozen track athletes. Boldon has never quite been the Fastest, but he has been the 200-meter world champion, and he often follows close on Greene in the 100, as he did in Sydney, silver to Greene's gold. They are the best of friends, yet Inger Miller, their teammate, says simply, "Mo's a feeler, Ato's a thinker." You can't get any more different than that.

On the track Boldon looks as if he were running in black tie, stylishly coiffed, all sleek in his shades. Now, though, here comes the World's Fastest Human stepping into his lane in the center of the track, number 4. Mo Greene is shorn of locks and wears loose, casual apparel: a nondescript baggy shirt pulled over another one and floppy sweatpants. He looks as though he is preparing to rake leaves. Suddenly he tenses, gazing toward the finish, visualizing the race before him, then looking down in a kind of meditation, it seems, and finally stalking here and there in his lane, as an animal would mark his realm. As late as 1924, when Paddock was still running, the lanes were indeed territorial, divided by cords that ran their length. Greene still has that proprietary attitude. If you own lane 4, the rest of the track should belong to you too.

Greene seems to understand what he has fallen heir to. The World's Fastest Human is not a mere champion or some vote-getting MVP choice. Perhaps the Fastest once shared eminence with the Heavyweight Champion of the World, but there is no royal line to that title anymore, since it has been split up and is almost capriciously bestowed by alphabet organizations, cable networks and Don King. Anyway, with the World's Fastest Human, what is most important is not that he beats other people to succeed to the title but that he advances the attainment of Homo sapiens. We are all, after a fashion, in the World's Fastest Human's train. The honor can be overwhelming. "It's mind-boggling when you realize it's you," Hayes says. "It's hard for me to speak of it."

Says Lewis: "Anybody who can relate what it's like being the World's Fastest Human, he'd have to be really strange. I didn't feel any different as the fastest than I felt when I was the 50th fastest. So I would tell myself that I'm only the fastest that anyone knows of. There's a kid in Africa or Iran or somewhere who could run faster, but his life just took a different path."

Greene, who is uncommonly confident about what he does, is equally humble about what he is. "I don't think of myself as the World's Fastest Human," he says. "If I did, I'd lose my edge. Being the fastest is only my job. It's not who I am. The person sitting here talking to you is not the person you see on the track."

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