It's an unusual title, World's Fastest Human. The human is the
kicker. That has a special ring to it. Most times, when employing
definitive terms to designate superiority in our favored species,
it's the Something Man or maybe the Something Woman. The World's
Strongest Man, for example. Even in sideshows, the freaks were
half-man, half-animal, or half-man, half-bird. They were not
half-human. No, the World's Fastest, human division, stands
pretty much alone. Maybe because the resolution is so precise:
First one to the finish line wins. On your mark, get set, go.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine...and
change. The title is determined by minuscule but indisputable
"I'll tell you this," says Bob Hayes, who was the World's Fastest
Human not so long ago, "once you become that, you can only go
Although we have always had fastest humans, the best evidence is
that we've had the World's Fastest Human for only 80 years. We
don't know who coined the title, but apparently it was first
applied to Charlie Paddock, in the spring of 1921, after he ran
the 100 yards in 9.6 seconds in Berkeley, Calif. Paddock was
quite a fellow. He was the 1920 Olympic champion in the 100
meters and was known to down a sherry and a raw egg before a
race. On the cinders he was partial to wearing silk.
Superstitious, he knocked on every wooden thing he could find on
his way to the starting line, and then he engaged in a studied
ritual, putting his hands way out in front, then drawing them
back. It could be distracting, especially if you were in the lane
next to him. At the other end of the race he finished by throwing
himself into the air as the tape loomed. Off the track, too,
Charlie Paddock was a fascinating piece of work.
"You mean I can't live up to him?" asks Maurice Greene, the
latest in the line of World's Fastest Humans. He is altogether a
different sort from the original. The myth persists that the
fastest sprinters are all of a type--arrogant and gunslingers are
the most favored epithets--but the evidence doesn't support that
hackneyed assessment. Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell were, for
example, teammates and friends as well as rivals for years.
However, apart from the fact that they were, in succession, the
World's Fastest Human, they seemed to have nothing in common.
Lewis was thin, shrill and controversial. Burrell was stocky,
reserved and conventional. He has become a college coach; Lewis,
an aspiring movie actor.
August 5, 2001
Ever deductive, Lewis explains whence he thinks the bogus
sprinters' image derives. "A lot of it comes from the fact that
we don't stay together that much," he says. "Pole vaulters are
always together, talking about their poles. Who else can they
talk to? And the weight guys, they're all on drugs, so they have
that in common to talk about. Distance runners run together--I
mean, it's so boring, all that running. But no matter how close I
was to my teammates, even if we'd drive to a meet together, then
we'd split up. I suppose that made us look arrogant. Some
sprinters do think we're knockout punchers. They think they have
to get into your head and all that stuff. I hate that."
Not unlike the odd couple of Lewis and Burrell, today we have
Greene and Ato Boldon of Trinidad, his teammate on HSI, the
Irvine, California-based firm that represents two dozen track
athletes. Boldon has never quite been the Fastest, but he has
been the 200-meter world champion, and he often follows close on
Greene in the 100, as he did in Sydney, silver to Greene's gold.
They are the best of friends, yet Inger Miller, their teammate,
says simply, "Mo's a feeler, Ato's a thinker." You can't get any
more different than that.
On the track Boldon looks as if he were running in black tie,
stylishly coiffed, all sleek in his shades. Now, though, here
comes the World's Fastest Human stepping into his lane in the
center of the track, number 4. Mo Greene is shorn of locks and
wears loose, casual apparel: a nondescript baggy shirt pulled
over another one and floppy sweatpants. He looks as though he is
preparing to rake leaves. Suddenly he tenses, gazing toward the
finish, visualizing the race before him, then looking down in a
kind of meditation, it seems, and finally stalking here and there
in his lane, as an animal would mark his realm. As late as 1924,
when Paddock was still running, the lanes were indeed
territorial, divided by cords that ran their length. Greene still
has that proprietary attitude. If you own lane 4, the rest of the
track should belong to you too.
Greene seems to understand what he has fallen heir to. The
World's Fastest Human is not a mere champion or some vote-getting
MVP choice. Perhaps the Fastest once shared eminence with the
Heavyweight Champion of the World, but there is no royal line to
that title anymore, since it has been split up and is almost
capriciously bestowed by alphabet organizations, cable networks
and Don King. Anyway, with the World's Fastest Human, what is
most important is not that he beats other people to succeed to
the title but that he advances the attainment of Homo sapiens. We
are all, after a fashion, in the World's Fastest Human's train.
The honor can be overwhelming. "It's mind-boggling when you
realize it's you," Hayes says. "It's hard for me to speak of it."
Says Lewis: "Anybody who can relate what it's like being the
World's Fastest Human, he'd have to be really strange. I didn't
feel any different as the fastest than I felt when I was the 50th
fastest. So I would tell myself that I'm only the fastest that
anyone knows of. There's a kid in Africa or Iran or somewhere
who could run faster, but his life just took a different path."
Greene, who is uncommonly confident about what he does, is
equally humble about what he is. "I don't think of myself as the
World's Fastest Human," he says. "If I did, I'd lose my edge.
Being the fastest is only my job. It's not who I am. The person
sitting here talking to you is not the person you see on the
Appearances support this view. Greene is 5'9" and weighs 175
pounds. In repose at home he is almost cute, not at all
resembling that powerful, hulking creature that preys upon the
track, exhibiting such a sense of supremacy. He did not even
make the 1996 Olympics and nearly quit the sport, but a few
weeks after the Games he drove from his Kansas City home to Los
Angeles to work under John Smith, the renowned sprint coach.
When Smith rather casually inquired, "What do you want to do?"
Greene baldly replied, "I want to put American track and field
on my shoulders."
Smith, 51, who held the 400-meter world record in 1971, is a
proud match for his premier student. "In every great sprinter,
God left one thing out," he declares.
What did God leave out of Mo, John?
In addition to Smith, two circumstances--one personal, one
institutional--have shaped Greene. For the most part our fastest
sprinters have been groomed in college. Greene, except for
dallying awhile in a community college, enjoyed no intermediate
status. "He went directly from high school to the international
stage," says Craig Masback, CEO of USA Track & Field. "That's a
much bigger jump than some NBA star makes."
Then, there is this: Greene, like all American track stalwarts,
has learned that he is a prophet without honor in his own land.
World's Fastest Human he may be--and, by his own assessment, "a
rock star" in much of Europe and Asia--but he possesses a low Q
rating in the U.S.A., especially in any year that is not
divisible by four. Lewis has been retired five years and was last
World's Fastest a decade ago, but many Americans think he still
Unfortunately for Greene, many of his countrymen recall him
primarily as one of the four Ugly Americans who hoo-hawed and
pranced about, rolling around in red-white-and-blue, after they
had won the 4x100 relay at Sydney. In fact, it was Greene's
teammates who were guilty of the grossest exhibitionism. "They
were just kids--kids from the ghetto who'd never been in a
situation like that before," Smith says. "So they overdid it,
they acted like buffoons." Greene, however, wasn't much more
exuberant than when he'd won the 100 on his own. Nevertheless,
because track has such low visibility in the U.S., that singular
moment from the Olympics prevails in most memories.
But no. Look over there now, in the midnight shadows, sitting
silently on the curb--there is a more representative Mo Greene. It
is mid-June, and fireworks are going off, signaling the end of
the Grand Prix meet in Athens, at the stadium where the track
events of the 2004 Games will be held. It was also here, four
years ago, that Greene first won the world championship, and on
this track in 1999 that he sped to the finish in 9.79 seconds,
which is the fastest anyone created in the image of God has ever
negotiated 100 meters...clean. (Ben Johnson also ran a 9.79,
in 1988, but it was expunged from the record book after he tested
positive for steroids.)
Greene has been the ballyhooed star of this year's meet, paid
much the highest appearance fee. But now the show is over, and
the promoters have forgotten their meal ticket. There is no car
to take the World's Fastest Human through the horrendous Athens
traffic back to his hotel. One can imagine almost any other U.S.
sports hero's reaction to such a revolting development: sullen,
stomping about, ordering his do-boys to commandeer a stretch. But
Mo sits patiently on the curb in the dark, and when his manager,
Emmanuel Hudson, finally scares up a car, Greene refuses to let
it depart before he has jammed in a passel of teammates, all
around him and on his lap.
The kid from Kansas City remains grateful. Even if he has not
broken his record this night, even if he has managed only 9.91
(which he, of such high standards, characterizes as a time that
"sucks"), the World's Fastest Human makes millions of dollars a
year, and if he is not famous in Cincinnati, he is in Osaka. He
is rich and he is Nike and he is happy. Only a day earlier,
ambling off the practice track in Athens, Greene had suddenly
thrown up his arms and screamed, "I love this sport! I love my
teammates! I love all the things that go with my sport!" Then he
dashed around a corner and up a hill, running just for the joy of
Unlike many modern athletes, Greene understands his place in the
annals of his sport. "Mo is very respectful of history, of what
came before," Smith says. Seeing Greene's potential, the coach
early on instructed him in how to behave, should he indeed become
royalty. "He caught on right away," Smith says. "In fact, now
he's spending too much time promoting the whole sport."
At the Penn Relays in April, Michael Johnson was making what was
billed as his "farewell appearance on American soil." While
Johnson rarely competed in the U.S. and was never popular,
lacking any crossover appeal--"the anti-Carl," Lewis dismissively
calls him--he was Lewis's successor as the premier U.S. male track
champion. Greene and Johnson have never been friends, and before
their 200-meter showdown at the U.S. Olympic Trials last summer
they even had something of a newspaper feud. Riled, they both got
all worked up and injured themselves in the race--thus to lose the
Sydney medals that were there for the taking. Yet during his last
U.S. victory lap at the Penn Relays, on the far turn, Johnson was
startled by Greene, who dashed onto the track and embraced him.
Ave atque vale. Hail and farewell.
After the meet Greene sat in the hotel bus. It began to depart,
but he demanded that the driver wait till Johnson arrived. "I can
come right back for him," the driver said, but Greene protested
that there was too much traffic. So the bus waited.
This summer, though, Greene has assumed Johnson's mantle, and
even if Marion Jones remains the prime all-gender U.S. track
personality, he will be the indisputable male star at the world
championships starting this week in Edmonton. The mere fact that
Greene competes in the 100 affords him the most visibility. The
100 is more than ever the cynosure of track, but for a long time
even the World's Fastest Human played second fiddle to the mile.
That was the glamour race. As recently as a quarter century ago,
middle-distance runners could demand guarantees, while sprinters
had to take nothing or leave it. Two things changed this
One was Lewis. Smith swings his arm wide around the lobby of the
five-star hotel where the track performers are sequestered in
Athens. "We're in this hotel because of one man: Carl Lewis," he
says. "Carl said, 'This is the kind of hotel where I'm staying,'
and he did, and soon everybody was with him. Nobody was better at
supporting other athletes than Carl. He was smart and confident,
but he got an unfair reputation. Amateurs were supposed to be
grateful, and he wasn't, and he was made to pay for that."
"They didn't like what I was making, so all the promoters
declared a prix fixe for everybody," Lewis says. "I said, 'Fine,
I'll take the summer off.'" There would be no cut rate. The
promoters caved. Lewis was too valuable at the box office. Also,
he was the first postwar World's Fastest Human to market the
The second reason for the ascension of the sprints was a variant
of racial prejudice. Blacks had been a presence in sprints as far
back as 1886, when a black man identified only as A. Wharton
became one of the first runners on record to "beat even
time"--that is, run the 100 yards in 10 seconds flat. (The 100
yards is about nine yards and a foot shorter than the 100
meters.) Eddie Tolan, whom white sportswriters dubbed the
Midnight Express, was the first African-American to win Olympic
gold in the 100 meters, in 1932, preceding Jesse Owens, the
so-called Ebony Antelope, in 1936. After Hayes's gold in 1964,
the sprints were increasingly--then utterly--dominated by blacks,
even as the longer races, especially the mile, remained largely a
white province. However, as Africans began to enter the distance
lists, beating whites, interest in the longer races, even the
mile, began to diminish. Suddenly African-American and
African-European sprinters became more attractive.
Still, even now a journeyman white middle-distance runner
typically commands higher guarantees than all but the top black
sprinters. Emmanuel Hudson shakes his head ruefully in
acknowledgment of this economic reality. "Oh, definitely," he
says. Hudson knows.
Hudson is lobby-sitting in Athens with Ian Stewart, a former
world-class middle-distance runner, who organizes and promotes
British meets. The business of track remains something of an
old-world Turkish bazaar, with runners or their managers haggling
with promoters--not only about guarantees, but also about airline
tickets (including class), hotels and performance bonuses. "If we
ever get a white American--or even a [white] British--runner who
can win the 1,500, he'll dwarf what Maurice is making," says
Stewart. Hudson purses his lips, nodding at that cold assessment.
So if Alan Webb, the Virginia high school phenom who broke the
scholastic mile record at the Prefontaine meet in Oregon this
spring, develops into a star, he'll turn the economics of track
and field on its head. Ever mindful of the continuum of history,
Greene--he who ran onto the track to bid Michael Johnson
goodbye--jumped out and embraced Webb in welcome at the
Prefontaine. "He don't look like no high school dude," Mo said.
Whereas Lewis caught--and fought--track during a transitional
phase, when it was seeking to shuck the hypocrisy of amateurism,
Greene is really the first all-pro World's Fastest Human. He
still must deal with a sport that remains marketing-deficient
(even in Europe) and antediluvian in so many other respects.
Surely no sport has entered the 21st century if it still features
those rinky-dink number bibs that are sold to advertisers as
billboards by meet promoters and attached to all track jerseys.
Imagine Pete Sampras having to take safety pins--safety pins!--and
affix a tacky paper ID number to his shirt before he heads onto
Masback even believes the metric system in track inhibits its
popularity in nonmetric America. "The 40-yard distance they use
in football scouting is probably better known now in the U.S.
than the 100 meters," he says. Always, too, there is the specter
of drugs, track's one Horseman of the Apocalypse. Who knows how
prevalent doping is? "It's not true that everyone does it," says
Lewis. "Maybe 10 percent, but you get to the finals of some
event, then it's five out of eight." Masback protests that the
U.S., with random testing, has greatly reduced drug use among its
runners, and that they are getting a bum rap. Regardless, the
perception of rampant doping remains, so much of corporate
America shies away from associating with track. Also, given human
nature, whoever is on top bears the greatest suspicion.
"So we're the whipping boys in track today," Smith snaps. "I'm
used to that talk about HSI. It's like the stigma of being black.
But if they're whispering that we're succeeding because of drugs,
then we've already won, because that means they don't believe
they can beat us. We are pure of body, mind and soul. We've
endured the most stringent of tests. Mo's been tested three times
in a week, but we're still running the fastest. That's because of
our belief system--not any pharmacology."
Most of the World's Fastest Humans have had short shelf lives.
This had largely to do with the shamateur nature of the sport and
the emphasis on the Olympics, which forced track stars to quit
training and get a job even when they had their best races left
in them. Who remembers Jim Hines, gold medalist at Mexico City in
1968, the first man to crack 10 seconds in the 100 meters? He
abandoned the track to join the Miami Dolphins, for whom he
played for one season and then disappeared from view. Lewis is
the only 100-meter repeat gold medalist and one of the few "speed
demons," as we used to call them, who sustained their fame. It
would be melodramatic to suggest that World's Fastest Humans are
jinxed, but few have prospered for long. Wyomia Tyus, the World's
Fastest Woman in the '60s, observed, "The world isn't attuned to
sprinters. We're around, flashy and successful for a year or two.
Then we're gone, while the world goes on being run by plodders."
Bobby Joe Morrow, the triple gold medalist (100, 200 and 4x100
relay in Melbourne in 1956), was literally left at the airport as
the 1960 U.S. team departed for Rome, informed only then that, as
an alternate, he would not be going, and he remains bitter about
it to this day. Harold Abrahams, the 1924 gold medalist,
was--wouldn't you know it?--barely dead when Chariots of Fire made
him world famous. Jesse Owens, of course, became a saintly figure
because he showed up Hitler, but a fat lot of good that did him
back in the land of the free and the home of the brave. He was
accused of letting his country down because he didn't enter
foreign races that the Amateur Athletic Union had decreed he
should run in (without pay, naturally). Owens left Ohio State to
take advantage of his moment in the sun, then bemoaned his lack
of real opportunity: "Everybody wanted to meet me, but no one
wanted to offer me a job." Further, when he tried to take
advantage of his symbolic status, other blacks derided him as
America's "official Negro"; Harry Edwards, the Berkeley sociology
professor, even disparaged Owens as "a bootlicking Uncle Tom."
Paddock, who had been Owens's childhood hero, unsuccessfully
tried to persuade him to remain an amateur, arguing that he could
make more money under the table. Paddock knew whereof he spoke;
he had profited handsomely that way in the '20s. Indeed, until
Lewis in the 1980s, Paddock was the most entrepreneurial
sprinter. He was pretty much his own p.r. man, and he would run
races over odd distances, establishing records willy-nilly. His
amours also kept him in the news. He was engaged to a movie star,
Bebe Daniels, and later made the columns when he broke up with
another actress, one Madeline Lubetty, who sued Paddock (the
cad), demanding $100,000 as what was called in those innocent
times "a heart balm."
Prefiguring the outspoken Lewis, Paddock feuded with the
simon-pure track pooh-bahs. They had a conniption when he starred
in a movie--The Olympic Hero--getting paid pretty much to play
himself. He was suspended twice for breaking rules against making
money. Like Lewis, though, Paddock never was silenced. He even
began one bylined newspaper article, "Shooting is too good for
In the end Paddock suffered the worst--and most sadly ironic--fate
of all those in the Fastest club. He'd served on the front lines
in France during World War I as an 18-year-old second lieutenant
and escaped without a scratch. Then, as a captain in World War
II, far from any action, he was a passenger on a military plane
that crashed, and Charlie Paddock was dead at age 42.
Still, of all the Fastest, Bullet Bob Hayes has experienced the
greatest extremes. Born into segregation, he became the nation's
heroic gold-medalist sprinter in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, an
All-Pro in football, then an alcoholic and a convict. Now he sits
in his mother's house in Jacksonville, essentially reborn twice,
of body and spirit. When he was paroled from prison in February
1980, wags said it proved he was the World's Fastest Human, since
he did five years in 10 months. But now Hayes really does seem to
have outrun both the devil and death.
Last year, at age 59, he suffered from prostate cancer, pneumonia
and a weakened heart. His lower body swelled with 73 extra pounds
of fluid, and his heart at one point slowed to 12 beats a minute.
"That's like dead," he says succinctly. The doctors even told
Hayes's sister, Lena Johnson, that they could not do anything
more for him. Somehow he recovered, and as he sits among a
scatter of hundreds of get-well letters and prayer cards, his
legs jiggle constantly, nervously, his sockless sneakered feet
shifting as if at any moment he might lift them again and dash
out the door.
"I can only believe that I survived because so many people prayed
for me, and God got me through," he says. "Now I'm in His path,
but there were so many times when I was on another path. I can't
practice perfection, but I can practice progress, and that's what
I'm doing. Tomorrow is not promised to you, but I'm fortunate,
I'm blessed. I'm a miracle. I can see. I can hear. I can walk. I
can still run. Not fast, but I can. I can still run."
When Hayes was young, he may have been the Very Fastest Human
Ever. Five-feet-eleven, 190 pounds, no sprinter had been
stronger. He wasn't a bullet at all, more like a mortar.
Pigeon-toed, his arms pumping, his spikes tearing holes in the
track, Hayes ran, as one coach said, "like he was pounding grapes
into wine." He won 53 straight sprints and took the '64 gold in
10 flat despite running on an inside lane that had been chewed up
by the recently concluded 10,000-meter race. He finished seven
feet ahead of the runner-up, which, for 100 meters, translates
into Secretariat at the Belmont.
A couple of days later, when Hayes took the baton and anchored
the 4x100 relay, he flew past a Frenchman who started almost
seven yards ahead of him. With the jogging relay start, Hayes ran
8.4, going about 30 mph. Nobody runs the 100 yards anymore--the
100 yards is the Stalin of statistics, having been expunged from
record books as if nobody had ever run it--but shhh: In 1963, at
the AAU championships, Hayes ran 100 yards in a record 9.1.
Most remarkable, he accomplished all this as a sideline. When
Lyndon Johnson called up Jake Gaither, Hayes's football coach at
Florida A&M, and asked him to keep Hayes healthy for the
Olympics, Gaither replied, "But Mr. President, Bob is a football
player. He just happens to be the World's Fastest Human."
Consider: In the 37 years since Tokyo the record has been reduced
by 0.21, barely a fifth of a second. "I played football almost
half the year," Hayes says. "I ran cross-country to get in shape.
I trained on a clay track. I ate the same food that you do.
Maurice seems to be built perfectly. He's so strong. It's all so
Hayes was only 21--years younger than what we now know a
sprinter's prime to be--when he left track to make money at
football. We can only speculate what he might have achieved if he
hadn't gone to the Dallas Cowboys and been such a good receiver.
Cowboys coach Tom Landry was amazed at his abilities. Dallas
running back Calvin Hill asked Hayes why he was the only player
whom Landry allowed to call him Tom.
Hayes smiled and said, "Nine-one."
He still wears his Super Bowl ring and NFC Championship ring. On
the wall of his mother's living room is a huge picture of him in
his Cowboys stars--number 22. Elsewhere upon the walls are
magazine covers featuring teammates Roger Staubach and Bob Lilly,
and what constitutes almost a shrine to Landry. There is little
evidence that Hayes ran track. The sport has forgotten Hayes, and
that is particularly sad because he never wanted to leave it.
"Believe me," he says, "you would've never seen me in a Cowboys
uniform if I could've made a living running." He cocks his head
and grins. "Why should I get beat up?"
It was also in football--not track--that Hayes encountered drugs.
Although he is clean and sober now, and has served his time for
trafficking in small amounts of cocaine and methaqualone, he
remains tarnished goods. None of the sponsors who trade off
Olympic glory, inviting former gold medalists to the Games to
mingle with clients, invite Hayes. He was there only once,
"My mother was sitting with Jesse Owens and Mrs. Owens," says
Hayes, "and when I won I saw tears running down my mother's face.
And Jesse Owens--he was a real nice guy, a father figure to
me--seeing him up there with my mother made me so proud. Then the
Japanese emperor put the medal around my neck. It's the greatest
feeling. That flag is flying. They're playing your national
anthem. You realize you represent everyone in your country. Yes,
some of them are bigots, and you might not want to represent
them, but you do. You see, if you think any different, then
you're going to be like them, aren't you?"
Bullet Bob sits back in his chair, his legs jiggling faster with
the memories of a time when no one on God's green earth could
keep up with him.
Greene was a high school football star, and he says that he, too,
would have left sprinting for the gridiron if track hadn't become
at least quasi-pro. Now, just turned 27, he is convinced he can
cut the record to 9.76. After all, Greene is positive he had that
time made at the Olympic trials last year when he slowed in an
early heat and cruised. Of course, maybe you can catch lightning
in a bottle only once. Lewis long-jumped 30 feet at Indianapolis
in 1982 but was called (inaccurately, it seems) for fouling. It
didn't bother him; he was sure he could do it again sometime. But
he never came close.
Smith believes Greene can get the record down to 9.65, which
would be shocking, except that Greene was stuck on 10.08 in 1997
until he put everything together and threw off a 9.86. "Fireworks
started going off in my head," he recalls. The impossible dream
in sprinting is to sustain speed through all 45 strides.
Sprinters reach their top speed in the middle third of the race,
eating up more than 12 meters per second, before tailing off.
Greene can maintain top speed longer, to about 80 meters out. "I
have a gift," he says.
"You can't feel yourself slowing down," Hayes says, "because
everybody else is slowing down too." Even Lewis, a slow starter
who ran down opponents, was not really kicking at the end. He was
only slowing up less than his rivals. The sprinter's kick is
illusory, like the rising fastball. The trick to reducing the
record by anything more than another few hundredths of a second,
then, is to find a way for a human to maintain speed for all 100
meters. Smith, the visionary, thinks it's possible. "Everybody
says you're going to fall apart at the end, but why?" he asks.
"Why does it have to be that way?"
Lewis is incredulous. "You do that, then you're in the eights,"
he cries out, wide-eyed.
Apart from reengineering genetics, what more can be done?
Besides, at a certain point, each improvement upon the record
will be less ado about almost nothing. It is one thing to cut the
record from 10.2 to 10.1. But who will care if the World's
Fastest Human does the hundred in 9.744 instead of 9.745? Greene
appears to have the perfect body, a wonderful attitude, excellent
habits, the best coaching. Smith has never worked an athlete
harder, but the only new substantive advice he could offer Greene
this year was to make sure he kept his fingers straight out and
not clinch his fists. "It can't be that simple," Greene says
ingenuously, "can it?"
At the top rank, maybe it is. Running better is not like
learning a new off-speed pitch or a complicated extra move in the
paint. It's genetics and guts and then one foot before the other.
What more simple physical advice can there be? Maybe that's why
so many track coaches tend to sound so orotund. "Feeling running
fast is better than thinking running fast," Smith says. And: "I
tell my runners that I'm more interested in how you're looking
and doing than in how fast you're going." And: "Get in and clean
out the despair and keep the vision clean." And: "Eat right.
Sleep right. Dream correctly." Dream correctly? "Of course."
In addition, Smith always reminds Greene not to rush things. That
sounds perverse in dealing with speed, but once a sprinter panics
and rushes out of kilter, he can't recover. Lewis believes that
because his opponents believed it was so crucial to get out in
front, they placed too much emphasis on the start. That idea,
Lewis says, still damages the way many sprinters and their
coaches prepare. Not Greene. "The one thing I'm capable of," he
says, "is patience. The one time I didn't take my time was in the
200 trials last year against Michael Johnson. That's when he'd
said in the paper that I wasn't ready, and I injured myself. But
when I run fast, I run outside myself, and I'm not tired at the
He and Smith were walking off the track after a workout in Athens
in June, talking speed. What's the difference between quick and
fast? Smith started to pontificate on the subject, but Greene
looked at him and shook his head, smiling. Smith shut up. Greene
said, "It's like this: Quick, I can win a race. Fast, I can do
some damage." Smith nodded. That took care of that. Greene smiled
his little-boy smile and skipped a step.
Running fast is so elemental. Maybe it is all the more so for
Greene, because like most of the World's Fastest Humans, he is
chasing only time. Perhaps that is why Hayes seems most fondly to
remember that Olympic relay race, the one occasion when he
actually had to beat somebody. Lewis cites the 1991 world
championship in Tokyo as his best. He set the record at 9.86, but
five others broke 10 seconds, and first Dennis Mitchell, then
Burrell, then Lewis led the way. "That was a race," he says,
relishing the memory. "Records that you set in one day shouldn't
matter as much as they've come to. It's like baseball: What wins
games over a season is pitching. Someone like Greg Maddux doesn't
look that strong, but over a season...." Lewis let the thought
hang for a moment, then finished with a flourish: "I had the best
Still, how can we avoid being fascinated by the sheer fastest
stuff, the damage? "Speed is uniquely American," Masback says.
"We have a reverence for speed. The trouble is that track is so
objective that it may be hard to sustain someone's interest after
he's broken a record. Everything else seems a comedown."
Greene is lucky in one important respect. He is saved from being
too self-absorbed because he is so involved with his team. HSI is
even more sophisticated than the Santa Monica Track Club, which
gave Lewis and Burrell the same sort of support and camaraderie.
Hudson cannot even sign a new client unless a majority of the
members votes for the nominee. HSI is as much club as team.
Greene frequently pauses in his workouts to help lesser HSI
athletes. Andrew Miller, the hefty team trainer, watches Greene
work with Christine Arron, a world-class sprinter, on her start.
"Mo's really a giving person," Miller says in genuine admiration.
The World's Fastest Human is a nice guy, just like many of the
common people whom God made slower. At meets, he dashes about the
infield, cheering on his teammates. He tutors young Bernard
Williams, teaching Williams how to beat him someday, when it is
time to pass the torch. At Athens, after meeting with the press
following his own race, Greene hurried back near the finish line,
where, with Boldon, he sat and waited to greet Arron and Torri
Edwards after they had competed in the women's 100--and console
them if they lost.
Away from the track, Greene says, "I just chill out," enjoying
the same kind of activities that most millionaires his age engage
in. He plays video games, drives a Mercedes with a license plate
that reads MO GOLD and has the obligatory diamond earrings and
tattoos we have come to expect from our young athletic stars. He
does watch his diet, however, shunning the junk food he was
inclined to eat before he fell under Smith's aegis, and he has
shown a creative bent in designing his own posters and a Mo
Greene calendar, which can be found on his website
He has a one-year-old daughter, Ryan Alexandria, from a past
relationship. He visits Ryan often in Pasadena, across town from
his house in a newer upper-middle-class suburb of Los Angeles,
where the roads wind and the houses have Spanish-tile roofs.
Inside, his house is dominated by a PlayStation, which his
brother and a cousin are enjoying at the moment as Greene shows
off his trophies and his website. With major artillery action on
the PlayStation, it seems rather like Mo is living in a bowling
alley, but he is unfazed.
"If people ask who is the greatest sprinter ever," he calls out,
over the din, "I want to show them a race that is so beautiful
that people will remember it forever."
John Smith says, "I want Mo to run into the horizon, if I may be
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine...and
change--a little less change. But only if you dream correctly.
Charlie Paddock was known to down a sherry and a raw egg before a
race. On the cinders he was partial to wearing silk.
Lewis caught--and fought--track during a transitional phase,
when it was seeking to shuck the hypocrisy of amateurism.
Owens became a saintly figure because he showed up Hitler, but a
fat lot of good that did him back in the land of the free.
"You would've never seen me in a Cowboys uniform if I could've
made a living running," Hayes says. "Why should I get beat up?"
When Smith asked, "What do you want to do?" Greene baldly said,
"I want to put American track and field on my shoulders."