THE SEOUL GAMES : HOLD THE FLOWERS : Moses Warns the World That He's Not Ready to Surrender His Throne

Times Staff Writer

The day after the fall, Edwin Moses was sitting in a hotel restaurant, talking about saving a life.

Moses and his wife, Myrella, live in Newport Beach in an area of abundant wildlife. A bird built a nest in their back yard and hatched a baby. One day a king snake slithered over the Moses' fence and zeroed in on the baby bird.

When Edwin looked out his window, the snake had the little bird's head deep in its jaws, ready to take the big gulp. Mother bird was hopping up and down frantically on the snake's back.

Moses ran out into the yard and the snake, distracted by the sight of the world's foremost 400-meter hurdler charging his way, coughed up the birdie, which Moses put back in the nest.

A cute story, and maybe an unintended parable for ye Moses fans of little faith. It's never over until it's over. You're never dead until you're dead.

As Moses was crossing the finish line Sunday in the final of the 400 hurdles, in third place, the TV announcer was shouting: "The king is dead! Long live the king!"

Dead? You win an Olympic bronze medal on a bad day and they're ready to kiss you off? It was enough to make Moses choke on his shrimp-and-pepperoni pizza.

"My competitors don't feel that way, and that's the important thing," Moses said, quietly. "They feel the exact opposite."

He was a little steamed, frankly, that anyone would even think of writing him off, even if it was only a TV guy reaching for a little poetry to punctuate a rare and dramatic moment--a defeat for Edwin Moses.

The problem is that Moses had his bad day in the biggest meet of the decade, at the age of 33, and after having lost twice last season after a decade of nothing but winning. The assumption in some quarters, including perhaps the NBC booth, is that this is it. The king is dead. Thanks for the memories.

Certainly it was a traumatic moment for the sport. Winner Andre Phillips and silver medalist Amadou Dia Ba of Senegal were both crying in the holding area after the race. They had beaten the man who inspired them to athletic greatness, whose own regal dominance of the event motivated their daily training.

"They know that I could've won the race," said Moses, who was taking the loss with great equanimity Monday until someone mentioned the TV comment.

He had spent the early afternoon filming a TV interview in Olympic Park with his wife and his mother, Gladys.

Moses was neither suffering nor mourning. He was looking forward to watching the rest of the Olympics as a hard-cheering fan of his U.S. team pals. During filming, he popped into an office in the cycling venue to watch TV and cheer as friend Roger Kingdom won the high hurdles.

But the suggestion that anyone might be sending him to pasture after a third-place finish cut into Moses' sunny, unbeat mood.

"They (his rivals) know it was fate, not age, or getting wiped off the track. That loss had nothing to do with age.

"This (the loss) is an open challenge to any other competitors, to hang around for four Olympics and be the favorite in each one, and to challenge in the fourth one and win a bronze. That will never happen again. That will be the historical perspective."

The man hasn't dominated his sport for 12 long years without developing a sense of pride in his work.

"Being (in the final), forcing that kind of race, bringing out that kind of effort, that's my contribution to track and field," he said.

But what happened Sunday?

"I just came out flat, flatter than usual," Moses said. "The excitement wasn't there for me the way I think it was for Andre and the other guys. It's one of those things you can't explain. . . . It's really hard to tell. Some days you really don't feel like racing and you have a great performance, some days you feel great and you have a mediocre performance.

"I felt that I was ready. I know I'm in the best shape I've been in a long time. . . . I just never ran a smooth race. I never got into the pattern I know I should've been in. That I can't explain. . . . If there was a time to go under 47 (seconds), that was the day to do it, but it wasn't in the stars or the cards.

"I knew it was possible to win the gold, but I ran a bad race on a big day."

Maybe because Moses has set such a high standard of personal excellence, some fans might expect he would retire now that he has fallen to the level of mere mortals.

"People who ask why I should keep going, they just don't understand the type of passion that's involved in athletics," he said. "You win and you lose, but you love it."

No retirement plans for Moses. The one-time physicist is now pursuing an MBA, but his primary career is still running, hurdling and winning.

"I'll run next year," he said. "There will be no real change in my plans."

What about Barcelona, the 1992 Olympics?

"After next year, I'll take it year by year," Moses said. "If I can make it (to Barcelona), I'll make it. They haven't seen the last of me yet, that's for sure."

Sometimes Moses envies his college friends, all of whom have gone on to successful careers in medicine or engineering. Then his friends convince him that he made the right move, that he is living out all their athletic dreams for them, and that makes him proud.

Moses knows he can't go on forever. He got into track in high school because the basketball and football teams seemed to have racial quotas, whereas in track the clock is the indisputable judge.

Through the years, the clock has been his best friend and chief spokesman. How good is Moses? Check the numbers. Ask the clock.

But now the clock is working against him, ticking away the days and years. Someday the king will die, athletically, but he says that day wasn't last Sunday.

"You know how they always say, 'The opera's not over till the fat lady sings'?" Myrella said. "Well I just lost 20 pounds. And I don't sing very well."

A footnote: The opera is over for the birdnaping king snake. Moses took his pellet gun and killed the snake with one shot to the head. He knew if he hadn't, the snake would return later for its snack. Moses is very protective of his own back yard.

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