For Edwin Moses, it’s still about overcoming barriers
He stepped to the podium, nervous in front of the tens of thousands at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum and the millions watching on television. Awestruck, halting at times, he spoke these words: “In the name of all competitors, I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules that govern them, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams.”
This was 25 years ago, the opening ceremony at the Olympics. This was Edwin Moses, as iconic a champion as existed that unforgettable summer, chosen to deliver the traditional Athlete’s Oath that starts every Olympics because he stood for far more than wins and losses and fame.
“To this day, that oath really means everything to me,” says Moses, who at 53 remains lean and lithe and bright-eyed. “Winning the gold was a great thrill. But right behind that was saying the oath. We can’t let ourselves forget its deeper meaning. . . . It’s about having a battle without wars that is fair and ethical. It’s about humanity. You look at sports and the problems we’ve had since 1984, it can be pretty numbing. But we can’t stop fighting for what’s right.”
There’s not an athlete on the planet who could have put it any better.
For those who never saw him, those who’ve forgotten, those who were not yet born in 1984, let me assure you, Edwin Moses was something to behold. Tall, graceful, powerful, he dominated his event, the 400-meter intermediate hurdles, in a way not seen before or since.
The 1984 Games were a pinnacle -- a gold-medal win on home soil -- but far from the only megawatt highlight of his career. In 1976, Moses first won Olympic gold, at Montreal. He almost certainly would have won again in 1980, if not for the American boycott of the Moscow Games. Come 1988, just past his lengthy prime, he took the bronze medal in Seoul. And from 1977 to 1987, he won an unfathomable 122 consecutive races, the track equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
Moses was an antidote to the modern athlete who spends an entire career comporting himself as a child. A physics major at Morehouse, he thought of himself as an intellectual, because he was. He had gravitas: knowledge, power, conviction. He spoke forcefully, always holding the sports establishment’s feet to the fire.
Maybe most important, in the context of the woeful side of sport that slapped us again this week -- thanks, Manny Ramirez -- Moses was something of a clairvoyant. Well before the public was aware of how doping had begun to plow through the athletic world, he put himself at odds with other competitors by speaking against the scourge.
And so it was that this son of Dayton, Ohio, found himself on the floor of the Coliseum, perched on that platform, delivering that oath.
“An unbelievable feeling,” he recalled on a recent day, sitting in a restaurant in Newport Beach. He said he looked up and realized he’d never seen so many people gathered together. It nearly took his breath away. Part way through, he appeared momentarily lost. “I had the words to the oath in my pocket. I sort of stumbled, but I didn’t want to dig in my pocket and fish it out.”
He made his way through, just as he’d make his way through that gold-medal race, awash in a standing ovation. It was his 105th straight win, his 90th in a final heat.
That last race, what a wonder. He can still hear the camera shutters from the media pit, still feel the breeze and humidity, still sense the mammoth crowd and the tension.
He’s a proud man. Proud that he can talk of achieving great success without cheating, and that nary a soul will doubt him.
“I stand with all the athletes who believe in doing things right,” he says, voice low, words thoughtfully chosen. “The ones who win and the ones who lose while knowing they have been cheated out of their positions. There are thousands if not tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of those kinds of athletes out there. We have to remember them.”
You must understand how it hurts a master athlete like Moses, hearing the steady stream of salacious news from the sports world -- cheater after cheater outed. It tears at his soul. The cheats, he knows, just as all right-thinking people know, can’t be allowed to beat an entire culture into submission. Moses remains an outspoken doping critic: a stickler for tougher testing, tougher penalties, more accountability.
He’s hardly worn down. He rightly believes there’s still a huge swath of world-class athletes who remain true to time-tested values. These athletes, he says, should be celebrated. And these athletes, he believes, should use sport for the good of mankind. Today, Moses keeps a home in Atlanta and a condo in Orange County, but most often you’ll find him hopscotching the globe as chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy, a role that has him speaking out about sportsmanship and teaming with top international athletes to fight poverty and hopelessness worldwide.
“A deep passion,” he calls this effort, speaking as he once did about the hurdles. “My parents always emphasized service to others. That’s what this is all about.”
It might be odd to think of one of the great champions, deep into retirement, visiting Brazilian slums, trying to persuade gun-toting kids to embrace sport and turn their backs on violence. But then again, think about that 1984 oath and the deeper meaning to the man who gave it: It’s about humanity.
Think, too, of the grace under pressure he showed the entire world in that gold-medal race at the Coliseum. This coming Wednesday, it will have been 25 years, on the nose.
“Twenty-five?” he says, before sighing deeply. “Sometimes I look back and think, ‘Has it been that long? Has it?’ I guess it has. You know, a whole lot in the world has changed since then. . . . “
Thankfully, one thing hasn’t: Edwin Moses himself.