The two-time Olympic 400m hurdles champion on his fight against doping, his amazing unbeaten streak and meeting Nelson Mandela
The number 999 is burned into Edwin Moses’s psyche. He holds the greatest winning streak in athletics for, as a two-times Olympic champion over 400m hurdles, Moses was unbeaten for nine years, nine months and nine days.
From August 1977 to June 1987, he won 122 consecutive races but the worldly American, who is also a physicist and the chairman emeritus of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, has spent enough time in other countries, such as Britain, to know 999 is also the number to call in an emergency.
For much of his life the struggle against doping has felt like an emergency to Moses. It explains why he has been at the forefront of anti-doping for 32 years and why, even now, he is such a vocal proponent of clean sport.
Moses has helped lead the clampdown on Russia’s state-sponsored doping programme. He continues to monitor the situation in regard to a likely blanket ban on all Russian athletes competing in this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, even as “authorised neutrals”, and he is heartened that last week World Athletics hardened its stance. Real changes and genuine contrition need to be shown by the Russian Athletics Federation to avoid the ban on all its individual athletes. This is a fight Moses has waged for decades.
“That’s why I worked out three times a day,” he says when asked if he felt the shadow of doping among his rivals even when he seemed invincible as an athlete. “I ate properly. I had a great stretching programme. I had a great physical therapist. I did all kinds of innovative training exercises. I swam. Did weights. But I also did it because I knew it would make me the best.”
This was not the template used by cheating athletes. “We all knew it was happening,” Moses says. “We knew doping was wide scale because there was no drug testing – beyond being able to detect drugs for three or four days. It was unabated.
“I’m a physicist. I’ve got a biology and chemistry background. I wanted to be a doctor. So I was shocked when I went to the 1976 Olympics and saw some of the eastern bloc women. They were much more manly than me.
“Then, in the 1980s, more athletes used performance-enhancing drugs because out-of-competition testing did not exist. There was no test for testosterone or growth hormones then. EPO was brand new. So there was unabated use of these drugs all over the world.
“A few athletes spoke up but many made comments out of expediency. It was a dark period in my sport and it’s continued for a long time. It’s finally changing now but I was one of the few who spoke out at the start. People who protest, and do the right thing, usually don’t have anything to gain. I was winning anyway so there was nothing for me to gain. I could have done nothing and track and field would have been worse than it is today. I made a difference. That’s why we have out-of-competition drug testing – because of what I and a few others did in 1988.”
Athletics has never recovered from its loss of legitimacy in the aftermath of the dirtiest race in history, the 100m final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when Ben Johnson, the initial winner, failed a drug test. Serious questions, at the very least, have been raised over the other seven finalists. Moses, who won bronze in the 400m hurdles at those Games, when he was 33 and competing in his final Olympics, felt an even sharper desire to clean up his sport.
“After Ben Johnson, I put together a group of 10 US athletes. We demanded [out-of-competition] testing in the US. We got the money and legislation and drew up the drug programme from scratch because no one had ever done it. We got it ratified and the following year the US Olympic Committee adopted our programme. I became the chief of US testing from 1989 to 1994.
“There was no such thing as Wada [the World Anti-Doping Agency] and, in the US, I was chairman of the committee for the big six Olympic sports. I negotiated agreements to test athletes and that was the first testing outside competition.”
The 64-year-old Moses seems energised by World Athletics. “They’re doing an outstanding battle in the fight against doping and hopefully the corrupt people are gone. The news [last Thursday] was great. World Athletics put out a statement saying unless the Russians apologise for the last transgression [when their federation conspired to hide the truth with the 2018 world indoor high jump champion, Danil Lysenko, who missed three doping tests], they’re rescinding the possibility of their athletes competing in Tokyo. Period. They’ll stop all of them.”
At the world championships in Doha last October, 29 Authorised Neutral Athletes from Russia won six medals – despite their country being banned for four years. “The ones they allowed to compete [in Doha] were tested as much as anyone else. If they can’t show the same evidence there’s no reason to let them compete. I feel that way about any athlete from the many areas of the world where there’s very little testing. But this latest news is significant. Someone’s got to stand up for the right thing.”
Does he expect Russia to back down and apologise? “No. I doubt it.”
Moses is justifiably proud of his role in toughening up Wada – as the anti-doping agency seemed subservient to the International Olympic Committee. Moses and Beckie Scott, the chair of Wada’s Athlete Committee, became embroiled in a row with the organisation. Scott said she was “bullied” in 2018 over her opposition to reinstating Russia’s anti-doping agency. Moses supported Scott and he was told to “shut up” by some Wada officials.
I think the strain in anti-doping politics has been taken out because the leadership has changed
“I’m proud that – alongside Beckie and others on the athletes’ commission – we forced Wada to look at its governance,” Moses says. “Hopefully we’ve been able to fix some of Wada’s problems. Changes were made to bring an ethical balance to the way Wada is run internally. The Russians got caught red-handed and the evidence was clear from two investigations.
“But politically it was perceived differently because of the money Russia puts into sports. If it had been a completely independent group that had nothing to do with international federations or the IOC, it would not have dragged on. At Wada they had federation guys and IOC guys who were not looking out for the best [anti-doping] interests. That was the innate problem. We forced them to deal with those issues.”
Will Wada be stronger now? “We will see. The new president at Wada, Witold Banka, is a [former Poland] athlete. I think the strain in anti-doping politics has been taken out because the leadership has changed. That was the elephant in the room. It started at the top [with the former president Craig Reedie being associated with the IOC].”
Is the war against doping being won? “Our deterrent model is very important. New software packages mean we’re able to buy the right tests that can withstand the legal, analytical and statistical scrutiny required to prove a test is conclusive. Drugs are being detected for longer periods of time. They’re now looking at proteins in the body that change immediately upon use of growth hormone, testosterone, EPO. We can detect more because we’re looking at protein chains, 200 or 300 segments long, in the DNA. That’s brought in a whole new way of testing.”
Moses is also a passionate ambassador for Laureus – the group that celebrates the power of sport to transform the lives of millions of people. He cites the moment when he was on stage with Nelson Mandela at the inaugural Laureus awards in 2000 as “one of the big moments of my life. What he said that night, about the power of sport, was so pertinent. I saw people crying in the audience. From then on I applied all the hard work, the discipline, the winning – all the positive things I learned from sport – to Laureus and helped build a great organisation. It’s been as satisfying as sport itself.”
Stressing the wider social and political power of sport, Moses encourages athletes to protest openly against racism, homophobia and other forms of injustice. He talks knowledgeably about football’s enduring problems with racism and supports those England players who have discussed walking off the field the next time they are subjected to racial abuse. “I would agree with them. If that’s what it takes, that’s a small price to pay for the indignity human beings suffer. I would have walked off the track if I had seen something like that.”
Moses also backs American athletes who have taken a knee against police brutality and racism in the US. In contrast, when asked about Donald Trump, Moses says: “I don’t even want to talk about our president.”
The IOC has said it will ban political protest at the Tokyo Games but Moses rejects this aim. “I don’t think you can stop it. It’s an individual discretionary endeavour and history shows you can’t stop protest.”
Sporting history confirms that, for those nine years, nine months and nine days, Moses was also unstoppable. Before he races off to his next meeting in Atlanta I ask him about the astonishing streak that began after he lost a race in Berlin against the German 400m hurdler Harald Schmid. A week later in Düsseldorf, Moses beat Schmid by 15 metres. Did the pain of defeat drive him for the next decade?
“That was a funny day. Before the race I’m sitting at the pool when I should’ve been working out at the track. But I was winning the race until I made a mistake at the last hurdle because I was running so slow. I used 14 steps instead of 13. That’s why I lost. But it taught me a lesson. You have to be 100% ready all the time. Don’t take anything for granted. After that I did not have any problems for almost 10 years.”
Was it particularly painful when he finally lost a race, to Danny Harris? “No. When I first started I lost all the time. Losing is part of the game. If you lose you figure out what you did wrong and fix it up. If it had been another five metres, I would probably have caught him. I’d been suffering from food poisoning and nearly pulled out but I was paid my money and I ran.”
A few months later, Moses beat Harris to gold at the world championships. “I was happy and the fact I had lost to him was beside the point. Most people lose.”
Moses almost always won but is there a danger his remarkable sporting record may be forgotten? “No. Just last week Tiger Woods said he believed mine was the streak of all streaks. As time goes on, it becomes more meaningful and significant. It’s been 33 years since I quit. No one’s even come close to my record. And it’s doubtful anyone will.”
• The 20th anniversary Laureus World Sports Awards take place in Berlin on 17 February, honouring the sporting triumphs of 2019, and celebrating the power of sport