Struggling to put in perspective the statistical esoterica that have grown up around Edwin Moses and the 400-meter intermediate hurdles is actually no more difficult than, say, beating Moses in the race. Of course nobody has accomplished that in nearly seven years. Ironically, it was only about seven minutes ago that people began to discover Moses: who he was, what he did and how really special an athlete and human being he had become.
When Moses won his gold medal in the 1976 Olympics he was a shy, unapproachable college kid—he didn't say much but used words such as "extrapolate." He wore a modified Afro and dark glasses and a rawhide thong necklace—gasp! What could that mean? Then in the summer of '77 began his astonishing streak of 89 consecutive victories (over-achieving statisticians at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials inflated this to 102 by including heats), many run over off-the-beaten tracks in Santiago, Viareggio, Bratislava, Taipei and assorted other magical stops to which not even ESPN has dared go. Moses has broken the world record in the 400 hurdles four times. He has run 17 of the 18 fastest times in history. Only three other men—Harald Schmid, John Akii-Bua and Andre Phillips—have broken 48 seconds in the event; Schmid did it three times, Akii-Bua and Phillips once. Moses has done so 27 times.
Moses not only never loses, he never comes close to losing. David Patrick ran his best race against Moses in Luxembourg last July and finished .06 of a second back. "I think Edwin must have been sick that particular day," says Patrick. Schmid, Moses's erstwhile rival from West Germany and the last man to beat him—Berlin, Aug. 26, 1977; they should build a monument on the site—hasn't come near him since. Schmid once gave in on a Swiss TV talk show, saying, "What do you expect of me? I'll never beat this guy."
For Moses nowadays the 400H is his personal preserve, indubitably his race and hardly even a contest anymore so much as a performance, a show. And now, ladies and gentlemen: In our center ring, please welcome...Edwin Moses and His Hurdles.
If ever there was such an introduction, Moses surely would opt for a little warmup monologue to take note of his physics studies, along with his background in civil engineering—and explain how this expertise helps him kick some serious hind end every time out. Moses would follow this with several biochemical one-liners concerning limb length and body movement and then unload his really dynamite stuff featuring computer readouts of his endurance training or respiratory system. At some point, one hopes sooner rather than later, Mrs. Moses, the former Myrella Bordt, of Berlin and the Greek Isles, who once sang lead in a reggae band, would cut off her husband, as is her wont, cry out enough already, and implore him to get on with the gig. Which he would do, taking approximately 47½ seconds to run over 10 hurdles 36 inches high, to the inevitable conclusion, victory.
Wait. What's that? What does Moses do? Moses runs over the hurdles? Correct. And right there, maybe that's the problem/solution. In order to open up the event to valid competition maybe they should stack Moses's lane with high hurdles (42 inches). Let him try those babies on for size while everyone else stays on the intermediates.
Precisely half of Moses's 6'2" height is legs. In track lingo he's "split high"; his 37-inch inseam forced him to wear pre-cut jeans extremely high-tide long before Michael Jackson made the look fashionable. ("You want to see my moonwalk?" Moses says, chuckling.) And Moses's 9'9" stride, gloriously picturesque, economical and downright Secretariatian, enables him to practically float down the track whether a hurdle is under him or not.
As Myrella Moses says, delineating her husband—the phenomenon, the institution, yes, all right, the legend—with more clarity than any numbers could, "Edwin's advantage is that the other fellas actually have to jump over the hurdles."
Now is that fair? The volume of hue and cry over why our most enduringly brilliant Olympian isn't more celebrated on his home shores is rapidly approaching a crescendo. In Europe Moses is mobbed in public, hounded by the media and cornered by children, who say things like, "We know you, Edwin Moses. Smile. Show us your gap." In Taiwan, 5,000 fans once watched him work out—by himself.
Plainly, his quiet personality and the fact that his surpassing excellence is contained within a tiny bubble within only a slightly larger bubble in the overall American sporting scheme are factors contributing to his semianonymity on the domestic front. What may be more important is that the 400H—once dubbed "the man-killer," so treacherous a physical undertaking it was—is considered by Moses a mere "hobby—arts and crafts, sport and science." That he was gifted with the perfect body for it, a probing mind to take apart the event and explore the thing to its finite limits, and the work ethic to demolish all previous human limitations—"Edwin is hurdling, body and soul," says his brother Irving Jr.—all this has added to the overall impression that what Moses does is easy. Thus, not very earthshaking. And yet that may be the ultimate measure of his greatness.