Edwin Moses is nothing if not an innovator. Born in Dayton, Ohio, the 6’ 2” Moses was already staring down a career in physics and industrial engineering when it came to try his hand professionally in the athletics arena – a sure sign of the intelligence and outside-of-the-box thinking that would go on to make him one of modern sport’s most influential individuals both on-and-off- the field.
In fact, in many ways, Moses never stopped leading from the front from the minute he put heel to track. In his first ever international meet at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Moses bested his teammate Mike Shine and secured a new world record time of 47.63 seconds in the 400m men’s hurdle. It was the start of a new era in athletics where Moses would come to personify personal excellence time and time again.
“I had a strong academic background, and I had an academic plan that preceded anything that had to do with athletics,” Moses, now 63, says. “Becoming a world class athlete was something one year before, had someone told me I was going to break the world record and run 47.6 over hurdles in 1976, I wouldn’t have believed it. But I kept working hard and applied myself.”
That “application” led to some of athletics’ most headspinning statistics. Alongside his two Olympic golds (1976, 1984) Moses, in the space of a decade between ’77 and ’87, managed to set a new 400m hurdles world record four times, and took first place in 122 consecutive victories before he was eventually beaten by Danny Harris in Madrid in the latter part of the ‘80s.
“There have been a lot of fast times recently, people running the 400m hurdles faster than ever before,” he drawls. “A lot of the training has been based on 200, 300 maybe 500m - but I used to do multiple 800 and 1,000m, so I just trained to accommodate my body and that’s the most important thing. There is no one system for everyone – I was a good sprinter but I never maximised my capabilities in the 200 or the 400m, but I didn’t need to because I was strong over 500 to 600m and an outstanding hurdler.”
One ace up Moses’ sleeve was his adoption of a brandnew technique on the track. Whereas the accepted standard saw competitors switch up their stride mid-race to maximise their power, Moses settled on a methodical routine of thirteen steps between every hurdle, every time. “I was a left leg lead hurdler, which is optimal,” he nods. “You want to hurdle with your left leg because you have to stay within the 48in lane, so if your body goes out of the lane over the hurdle or at any time you can get eliminated. If you run with the right leg you have to make sure your left leg swings around but stays within that 48in, so running with the left leg was an advantage.
“There’s only one perfect take off spot for each and every hurdle depending on how fast you are going. You have a metronome in your head, but you don’t physically count you just know visually as the hurdle approaches you. You just sense it – it’s moving at you and you know what’s going to have to happen, so make your adjustments automatically. The 13 steps happened to be what I could accomplish while still keeping me with my left leg forward and keeping me on the inside of the track. It was just the way I hurdled! It was unheard of at the time, but for me it was very consistent, I never had to think about changing legs or going faster or slower or speeding up or slowing down, all I had to do was run.”
Away from the lightning-fast competition on the track, Moses’ academic background was also conspiring to give him every advantage come race-time.
“I went to school with people who were going to become doctors and chemists and biologists, so I learned a tremendous amount about the physiology of the body,” he says. “Diet and stretching were two of the most important legacies that I left behind - two things that I was doing that I know no one else was.
“The types of things we were doing, using electronic training devices, pulse meters, graphs to design my workouts, biometrics, dynamic training, using ice baths…people thought I was crazy! Professional athletes, professional trainers, sitting in an ice bath 10C for 20 minutes, people thought I was absolutely insane, but that’s just the way it’s done now.”
It’s not the only legacy Moses left when he came to retire after the 1988 Olympics in Seoul where he scooped bronze. Even as he begun to start out on his professional career, Moses was showing himself to be as adept at driving progressive reform among the athletic powers-that-be as he was at overhauling the established hurdling norm.
In 1979 he had pitched the creation of an Athletics Trust Fund Program that allowed potential sporting stars to benefit from government and privately-backed stipends and grants. Then, following his retirement, he was instrumental in developing a number of burgeoning anti-doping policies in both professional and amateur competition. By the turn of the Millennium, Moses was elected the first Chairman of the newly created Laureus World Sports Academy – an organisation hoping to use “sport as a tool for social change around the world.”
“We’ve done fantastically well,” beams the hurdling humanitarian. “We’ve started out with two donations of a half a million euro from Mercedes Benz and Richemont and a vision to use sports for social change, and we didn’t have a plan or a structure or a foundation set-up. There was just five people in the office.
“I had experience in two other foundations, but I never thought I would be in the philanthropy business for so long. But there was a lot of passion involved, because we wanted to do it, and I was chosen by the Academy to be the leader and I just went from what I knew. And from those two donations, we’ve given away over 100million Euros, and we have over 100 projects in 40 or 50 countries, and we’ve affected millions of kids.”