At his best, Usain Bolt won 45 races in a row. Michael Johnson, who dominated the 200m and 400m events, went unbeaten for eight years in the 400m, winning 58 races in a row. But even these greats and their winning streaks pale in comparison to Edwin Moses.
From August 26, 1977 to June 4, 1987, Moses won every single 400m hurdles race he contested, adding a second Olympic gold on home soil in Los Angeles in 1984 along the way. His world record unbeaten streak lasted 9 years, 9 months and 9 days and during it, he won 122 races (109 finals).
In a way, one can say he was built for the hurdles – a race that is. He had been running track since high school, but it wasn’t until late 1975, as a 20-year-old, that he ran his first 400m hurdles race. His time in that race – a heat of the Southern Conference tournament in 1975 – was 52.0 seconds.
The improvements came quickly. In the Olympic Trials, he set an American record, winning in 48.30 seconds. And that put him on the plane to Montreal for his first international competition – the 1976 Olympics.
Not much is expected of a 20-year-old competing in his first Olympics. The pressure and the intensity of the competition can often get to first-timers. But no one was sure what Moses was thinking – he was a shy kid and he didn’t talk much. He turned up for the final wearing a modified Afro, dark glasses and a rawhide thong necklace.
Then, the starting gun went off and he set off. Moses started slowly but finished fast. He won by eight meters over teammate Mike Shine.
Moses had then said, “I pushed hard on the last five hurdles. Anyone can run the first five, but what decides who wins a race is the last five. I’d planned to run a 47.5 today. I guess 47.6 isn’t too bad.”
Clearly, Moses liked to stay low key. His 47.64 had broken John Akii-Bua’s world record by .18 seconds. Just a few months after taking to the 400m hurdles, he was a world record holder and his unbeaten streak had not even begun.
This was Moses still refining his technique. He was still figuring out how to do this best. Precisely half of Moses’s 6’2” height is legs. In track lingo, he’s “split high.” So while others had to jump over hurdles, the American seemed to fly over them.
Then, came the other big change. Moses’s 9’9” stride allowed him to cover the distance between each hurdle in just 13 strides (most runners at that point had a 15-stride pattern) and this changed the sport completely. Once Moses got it all together, he was unstoppable.
His opponents lost heart. They gave up. They still ran but it looked like they were never in the same race. It was never even close.
“Edwin is so good it isn’t even a story anymore, is it, when he wins or sets a record?” said Dr. Leroy Walker, the U.S. Olympic track and field coach in ‘76, to Sports Illustrated. “After all those races he’s still almost invisible. Taken for granted. He can be at 75, 80 percent and still beat everybody else. He’s gone past the textbooks now. In an art gallery, do we stand around talking about Van Gogh? Extraordinary talent is obvious. We’re in the rarefied presence of an immortal here. Edwin’s a crowd unto himself.”
But perhaps the most amazing part of the streak was that he was without a coach. He did it on his own. He knew and understood the technique. He used computers to analyse data from his workouts. He talked biomechanics. He focussed on nutrition and even did endurance training.
Truly, Moses was a man well ahead of his times. As for his unbeaten streak, it was a while before the others could catch up.
Moses’ winning streak finally ended on June 4, 1987 in Madrid.
The 31-year-old American ran a respectable 47.69 but Danny Harris, 23, won in 47.56. Moses hit the 10th and last hurdle and that probably cost him.
In the videos below, he speaks about his technique and his mentality: