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Gold Standard Once going nowhere fast, sprinter Maurice Greene has found his stride, smashed the 100-meter world record and set his sights on Olympic stardom

June 28, 1999
June 28, 1999

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June 28, 1999

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Gold Standard Once going nowhere fast, sprinter Maurice Greene has found his stride, smashed the 100-meter world record and set his sights on Olympic stardom

On Mondays, Maurice Greene makes a speech. He stands among his
training brethren on the pebbled red rubber of the UCLA running
track and, before opening his mouth, momentarily considers the
alternatives to running fast for a living. He thinks about the
dead-end jobs he has held: slopping fast food at more franchises
than he can recall, emptying trucks at a warehouse loading dock,
hot-walking smelly greyhounds at a dog track, tearing tickets at
a movie theater. The list goes on. He remembers that in the
spring of 1997, nine months after moving from his native Kansas
City, Kans., to Los Angeles to seek sprint greatness at age 22,
he grimly opened the classified section of the Los Angeles Times
in search of another lousy job because he was ready to call his
track career a failure. The memories pass in a blur. His
perspective firmly in place, Greene then spreads his arms in the
manner of an evangelical preacher and delivers a short,
heartfelt homily in free verse:

This is an article from the June 28, 1999 issue Original Layout

Thank God it's Monday
It's a beautiful day out here
We're not behind no desk
We're not fightin' no traffic
We're out here workin'
With the ability God gave us
So let's have a great practice.

Greene is neither poet nor rapper. But know this: His words flow
straight from the soul of the world's fastest man. Desk?
Traffic? Been there and worse. "I've had bad jobs," says Greene.
"Now I have a good one. I'm thankful." Now it's evening, after
the sermon and the spirited workout that followed. Greene is
hunched over the dining room table in his five-bedroom home in
Granada Hills, north of Los Angeles. One of Greene's houseguests
is watching a movie on the 120-inch projection television,
replete with plaster-peeling DVD system. Greene loves to watch
loud movies, like Top Gun and Scarface. Fast ones, too. "I've
watched Ben on that screen," says Greene, nodding. "I've watched
him lots of times."

Ben would be Ben Johnson, the disgraced Jamaican-born Canadian
who won the 100 meters at the 1988 Seoul Olympics in an
unthinkable world record of 9.79 seconds, only to be stripped of
his gold medal--and the record--when he tested positive for a
steroid. Seoul transformed Johnson into a pariah, a symbol of
the dirty track athlete. Yet to sprinters, 9.79 became a grail,
digits disembodied from the man and his methods. "Ben ran that
time," says '92 Olympic champion Linford Christie of Great
Britain. "Start to finish, nine-point-seven-nine."

Greene looked hard at those numbers, too. In the two years since
he nearly quit sprinting and sought other employment, he had
matured into the best sprinter in the world. He won the 100 at
the 1997 world championships, beating world-record holder
Donovan Bailey of Canada in 9.86 seconds and narrowly failing to
break Bailey's world record of 9.84 from the Atlanta Olympics.
As he prospered, Greene hungered still more for the record. In
'98 he and training partner Ato Boldon of Trinidad promised
almost daily that the mark would fall. Outsiders endorsed the
goal but not the boast. "When Maurice stops talking about
breaking the record, he's going to do something stupid fast,"
said Mike Holloway, who coaches sprinters at Florida and has
worked with '92 Olympic bronze medalist Dennis Mitchell.

This year Greene and Boldon promised to attack the record with
their feet and not their tongues. They might as well have
promised to stop breathing. "I intend to break the world
record," Greene said on this spring night. And more: "Me and Ato
talk about Ben's race," he said. "It was obvious he was into
something, but aside from that, the things he did, the times he
hit along the way, were just incredible. I can run 9.79. I know
I can."

He could not have known how soon. On the evening of June 16, in
the same Athens Olympic stadium in which he won the world title
two years ago, Greene ripped through a windless dusk and matched
Johnson's 9.79, demolishing Bailey's world record and tearing
more from the 100 mark than had been taken off in a single bite
since the onset of automatic timing more than three decades ago.
Far from overwhelmed, Greene was struck by the ease of the
effort. "No way I thought it was that fast," he said upon
returning to the U.S. last Friday. "It felt real easy. I believe
the record will go down again this season. This is only the
beginning."

In truth it's more like the middle. The beginning came less than
a week after his flirtation with Help Wanted, when Greene went
to Indianapolis for the 1997 national championships. Not only
was his athletic psyche in tatters, but his emotions were also
shredded after the deaths of an aunt and a grandfather in the
previous week. Yet Greene's coach, John Smith, the man he went
west to study under, sensed that Greene was on the edge of a
breakthrough. Smith went to Greene's hotel room and embraced
him. "This is the time to dig down and find something in
yourself," Smith said. "You're ready to run fast. Go out and do
it, and when you see the time, act like you expected it."

Early the next evening Greene exploded from the blocks in a
preliminary round of the 100 meters and opened a huge lead
before shutting down his engines 15 meters from the finish and
coasting across the line. His time of 9.96 seconds was .12
faster than he had ever run and put him among the world's best.
"I could feel my eyes get huge," recalls Greene, "but I had to
hold it in. Man, it was hard." At last the lightbulb was
illuminated. The want ads were flushed.

The next night Greene won his first national title, in a
scorching 9.90, making him then the third-fastest American in
history, behind Leroy Burrell (9.85) and Carl Lewis (9.86). Less
than two months later Greene stunned Bailey in Athens. It has
only gotten better. In just his third season of elite
competition, Greene has laid a foundation to become the most
accomplished 100-meter man in history (box, previous page). He
has broken 10 seconds for the 100 meters 17 times, twice more
than Lewis did in his 17-year international career and only nine
times fewer than alltime leader Frankie Fredericks of Namibia,
who has been competing at a high level for a decade. Of the 26
times of 9.93 seconds or faster run by Americans, Greene has the
most, nine. (Lewis has six; Burrell and Mitchell have three
apiece.) He has run seven of the 10 fastest times in U.S.
history. "He's the best right now. Everybody's chasing Maurice,"
says sprinter Brian Lewis, a member of the '97 U.S. team at the
worlds.

"What surprises me is his consistency," says Burrell, who
retired after the 1997 season. "Lots of people run fast once or
twice, but Greene is on a three-year run. People have no idea
how difficult that is."

Greene lacks only an Olympic gold medal to gild his resume. No
small matter, this, but barring injury, Greene will be the heavy
favorite in the 100 not only at this summer's world
championships in Seville (where he will also attempt the 200 and
probably anchor the American 4x100 relay team), but also at next
year's Olympics in Sydney. There are many races in the
interim--including a 200 summit meeting with world-record holder
Michael Johnson at this weekend's nationals in Eugene, Ore.--but
gold in Sydney is the only real goal left. "Everyone is coming
after me now," says Greene. "Fine, let them keep on coming. I'm
the fastest man in the world, no doubt. I think about Sydney,
and I can't wait. I just can't wait."

In a small room on the ground floor of the field house on the
campus of Kansas City Kansas Community College (KCKCC) one
afternoon last month, Al Hobson pushed a tape into a VCR and
punched the PLAY button. A 58-year-old former Marine who worked
for 29 years as an auto parts buyer for General Motors, Hobson
loves coaching young sprinters, which he has done for more than
two decades. Greene joined Hobson's Kansas City Chargers track
club at age eight. "That's Maurice," said Hobson, putting a
finger on the screen. A skinny 16-year-old with a high fade tore
down the straightaway and laid waste to a 100-meter field at a
regional AAU meet. The image switched to a van ride home. Greene
pulled medals from a knapsack on the floor and draped them
around his neck. "I won one, two, three, four.... I won four
gold medals and set one record," he shouted, mugging for the lens.

"That's Maurice, too," whispered Hobson, smiling. "Same kid.
Always that way."

For almost 23 years Greene lived in a circle whose outer edge
was no more than 20 miles from the center of Kansas City. He
grew up the youngest of four children, three of them sons, born
to Ernest and Jackie Greene. Maurice's brother Ernest, now 29,
was the first promising sprinter in the family and would
eventually run 10.24 for the 100 and reach the semifinals of the
1992 Olympic trials. Ernest brought Maurice to Hobson, and
Hobson guided Maurice to countless AAU youth titles and three
consecutive 100-200 doubles for Schlagle High in the Kansas
state championships. (Maurice added a win in the 400 as a
senior.) Maurice idolized Carl Lewis and vowed someday to beat
him.

A poor ACT score scared off most college football and track
recruiters, which was fine with Greene. He had received a
Project Choice scholarship that would pay for his schooling
wherever he went, and he was not all that interested in
collegiate competition anyway. Homesick at the mere thought of
leaving the Kansas City area, he attended Park College in nearby
Parkville, Mo., and KCKCC and continued to train with Hobson,
which seemed an inspired decision when in 1995 Greene qualified
for both the indoor and outdoor worlds and, as promised, beat
Lewis, in their first meeting, at the Texas Relays. However, the
Olympic year, '96, was a disaster. Greene injured his right
hamstring in April and never fully recovered that season. He
bombed out of the U.S. trials in the second round, couldn't get
himself into any European races and sulked around his hometown,
finding his workouts stale and sensing that he needed a change.

It would be a painful break. When Maurice was a teenager, his
mother agreed to raise a niece's five sons, aged four months to
five years. The Greene house overflowed. Maurice often slept at
Hobson's. "He became like a son to me and my wife," says Hobson.
Then on Sept. 26, 1996, Greene departed for L.A. "I had to
leave," he says. "I was at the point in my workouts where I knew
what Hop was going to say before he said it. I needed something
different."

Maurice drove with his father from Kansas City to Los Angeles in
his GMC Jimmy, the two splitting time at the wheel. On his first
day in Los Angeles, Maurice drove to UCLA, sat by the track and
waited for Smith to arrive. "So you want to run fast?" Smith
said upon seeing Greene.

"Yes, I do," Greene answered.

However, in nine torturous months, he only ran more slowly.
Smith broke Greene down with punishing workouts and tested his
resolve with withering soliloquies. "There were times when
Maurice just stood all by himself out on the infield because he
didn't want anybody to see him crying," says Boldon, who had
been coached by Smith for three years when Greene arrived. In
the evening Boldon would take Greene back to his house and
review videotape of the day's practice, helping Greene derive
some good from Smith's hectoring.

Away from the track Greene subsisted on a $20,000 shoe contract
from Nike. He borrowed money from Boldon and from his manager,
Emanuel Hudson. He lived rent-free with J.B. Hill, a charitable
man 25 years his senior who had played high school basketball
with Hobson.

Once Greene found his groove, mixing natural speed--"Can't make
tuna salad without the tuna," says Smith. "Maurice was born
fast"--with Hobson's foundation and Smith's precise mechanics,
he developed a low, efficient style that repeats itself like a
great golf swing. There are few moving parts and little wasted
energy.

As good as his body is, Greene's head is better. In the summer
of 1995, when Greene was a wide-eyed 20-year-old on his first
European tour, he met up with the seasoned Mitchell for a series
of three all-out 150-meter sprints on a track in Monte Carlo.
Mitchell, a voracious trainer, left Greene puking on the grass
after the first two and offered to let him quit before
finishing. Greene stood, wiped the vomit from his mouth and beat
Mitchell on the last sprint. Two years later, at the worlds in
Athens, Bailey messed with Greene's head through two days of
preliminary rounds, but Greene emerged to win convincingly in
the final. "Nothing that comes down the road seems to affect
him," says Burrell.

Boldon, who runs against Greene virtually every day and will
most likely be his principal opponent in the worlds and the
Olympics, says, "Maurice Greene is the most competitive human
being I've ever known. Off the track, he's fun-loving, with all
that Midwestern 'Yes, ma'am, no, sir' stuff. But on it, it's a
hell of a contrast. He's tough. I've gotten tougher just being
around him."

Greene's home in a Brady Bunch neighborhood has become a de
facto dormitory for Hudson's and Smith's HSI club members. (HSI
is officially registered as "HS International" and informally
called "Handling Speed Intelligently.") Consider it fair
repayment. HSI, which was formed by Hudson and Smith in 1996, is
a thriving enclave of 20 athletes that has provided Greene with
stability when he needed it most. "Like a family," Greene says.

One spring night Greene's "family" was scattered about the
house. Hurdler Larry Wade sat at Greene's computer, lost in a
chat room; hurdler Anjanette Kirkland wrote letters at the
kitchen table; and sprinter Curtis Johnson soaked up the DVD.
The house is plenty big enough for all of them to visit
frequently. (Track and field may be struggling for survival in
the U.S., but with prize money and appearance fees, most of them
earned in Europe, and endorsement contracts, a sprinter of
Greene's class can still get wealthy, which Greene has.)

On the wall of Greene's office is a framed verse that he reads
daily and believes:

Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run
faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning
a lion wakes up and it knows it must run faster than the slowest
gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn't matter if you're
a lion or a gazelle, when the sun comes up, you better be running.

Greene and Wade are driving to dinner now, with the top down on
Greene's black Mercedes 500SL, the one with the MO GOLD vanity
plates. The world's fastest man drives accordingly. At a
stoplight, the stereo causes nearby soccer moms to cringe behind
the windows of their SUVs. Greene and Wade begin bouncing to the
music. They are young and fast, running when the sun comes up.
Not behind no desk.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER The Gold Standard Sprinter Maurice Greene has found his stride, smashed the 100-meter record and set his sights on Olympic stardom [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLERCOLOR PHOTO: ALLSPORTCOLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Curves ahead Greene (9), who won this 200 at the TFA meet on June 6, will take on world-record holder Johnson at the nationals.COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Tongue lashing Greene licked the field at the May 30 Pre Classic.

FAST COMPANY

Breaking 10 seconds remains the standard of excellence for
100-meter men. At age 24, Maurice Greene (above, 112, setting
his world-record 9.79 in Athens) has gone under 10 seconds 17
times, putting him on course to become the most prolific sub-10
sprinter ever. Here are the sub-10 totals of the seven fastest
men in history and the number of years of elite competition it
took them to amass those totals.

AGE, SUB- PERSONAL
ATHLETE, COUNTRY STATUS 10s SPAN BEST

Frankie Fredericks, 31, active 26 9 years 9.86
Namibia
SKINNY Four-time Olympic silver medalist

Ato Boldon, 25, active 21 4 years 9.86
Trinidad & Tobago
[SKINNY] 1996 Olympic bronze medalist

Maurice Greene, U.S. 24, active 17 3 years 9.79
[SKINNY] World-record holder

Donovan Bailey, 31, active 16 5 years 9.84
Canada
[SKINNY] 1996 Olympic champion

Carl Lewis, U.S. 37, retired 15 15 years 9.86
[SKINNY] 1984 and '88 Olympic champion

Leroy Burrell, U.S. 32, retired 9 9 years 9.85
[SKINNY] Former world-record holder

Linford Christie, 39, inactive 9 11 years 9.87
Great Britain
[SKINNY] 1992 Olympic champion

"Everyone is coming after me now," says Greene. "Let them keep
on coming. I think about Sydney, and I can't wait."