The race was over now, and Edwin Moses was circling the track at Vallehermoso Stadium in Madrid. The crowd of 12,000 adoring Spaniards in the concrete stands saluted him with rapturous applause and chanted his name over and over. When that no longer seemed enough, they serenaded him with the thunderous cheer traditionally reserved for bullfighters: "Torero! Torero! Torero!" The 31-year-old Moses continued to run slowly around the track, accepting this tribute with his usual quiet dignity. "I suppose he has gotten so used to taking laps of honor," noted one spectator, "that he is still doing so, even though he has not won."
For nine years, nine months and nine days, Moses had not lost a 400-meter hurdles race. Not one. He had won his second Olympic gold medal and set two of his four world records during that time, but the thing that set Moses apart and made him an almost mythic figure of constancy was his winning streak. He had not been beaten since Aug. 26, 1977, when he lost in West Berlin to Harald Schmid of West Germany. After that he won 107 finals in a row, a total of 122 races if you include preliminaries. To put that in perspective, the last time Moses lost a race Star Wars was still a movie, not a defense system; Fritz Mondale had a political future; and an unseeded player named John McEnroe had just debuted at Wimbledon. That was two Popes, three Soviet leaders and three Rocky movies ago. Moses did not lose, did not seem capable of losing.
Dusk was just settling over a warm spring evening in Madrid last Thursday as Moses and the other hurdlers took the track. The crowd buzzed with anticipation as soon as it saw both Moses and Danny Harris, the American who had won the 1984 Olympic silver medal, in their warmup outfits. This would be the first time the two men had faced each other since those Olympics, and while Moses' performance had leveled off during the intervening years, the 21-year-old Harris had gotten better. He had taken up the event only four months before the L.A. Games, and despite clawing his way past Schmid for the silver, his technique then had been so raw that it sometimes appeared he was doing several new events: the high jump at the first hurdle, a long jump at the second and the vault at the third.
At a press conference the night before the Madrid race, Harris sounded a warning, announcing that he was ready "to run 47 seconds this year, perhaps tomorrow." The world record is 47.02, set by Moses in 1983.
Moses does not fall prey easily to a psych job, but with only three races under his belt this year, he had to be aware that he was vulnerable. "No one is Number 1 right now," Harris continued, turning up the heat. "Myself, Andre Phillips, Harald Schmid and Edwin are all at the same level. I'm going to lead all the way tomorrow and not let Edwin get ahead."
Moses' response to this verbal jousting was as laconic as ever: Questions from reporters about challengers evoked a faint sigh and a myopic glance through his lightly tinted glasses. "I manipulate my opponents best by saying nothing and letting them do all the worrying," he said.
Moses has become a master of this game. In recent years he has taken to jogging a lap around the infield at the start of a meet to draw the crowd's applause, giving his opponents a fresh reminder of exactly who it is they are dealing with. When the other runners settled into their blocks in Madrid after the starter's call of "A sus puestos," Moses ignored the order, walking back down the track while they waited for him. When he finally settled into position, he was in lane 5, which gave him something of an advantage on the turns but allowed Harris, in lane 3, to keep him in his sights.
Harris got off to a good start, and by the sixth of the 10 hurdles he was clearly in the lead. "But when I caught him, I didn't know what to do," he said later. "So I stayed with him." By the eighth hurdle, Moses had rallied and may have even forged a small lead. The two men went over the ninth hurdle almost as one. One hurdle to go.
"The critical thing Edwin has going for him," UCLA sprint coach John Smith once said, "is that he looks like Gregory Hines over the last hurdle." Unfortunately, in Madrid he looked more like Chevy Chase, trying to go through the hurdle rather than over it. "The pressure got to him," Harris said later.
As if he didn't already have enough problems, Moses had to contend with his glasses bouncing up and down on his nose, "because my contact lenses disintegrated two weeks ago." Harris won by astigmatism, finishing in 47.56 seconds, well behind the world record but still the fastest 400-hurdles time in the world this year. After the race, Harris wandered around the infield in a daze to a tumult of "Hombre!" Moses sat on the grass and got his head massaged, at one point suffering a two-minute sneezing bout from hay fever. "I'm not complaining about it, though," he said.