Edwin Moses Helps Kids to Clear Social Hurdles

By Steve McGill
Updated: April 1, 2007

Moses on his way to victory in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles

Moses on his way to victory in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles

MARYLAND — Edwin Moses, Olympic champion in the 400 meter hurdles in 1976 and 1984, dominated the event for over a decade and set very high standards for all modern hurdlers who try to follow in his footsteps.

These days Moses, who lives in Atlanta, spends much of his time traveling overseas as Chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy – a global humanitarian group whose members include 44 legendary athletes from a variety of sports.

Moses (third from left) sits with other members of the Laureus Sports Academy

Moses (third from left) sits with other members of the Laureus Sports Academy

Several African-Americans are in the group, such as tracksters Moses and Michael Johnson, basketball great Michael Jordan, and football great Marcus Allen. Other members on the global front include tennis greats Boris Becker and Martina Navratilova, and middle-distance running legend Sebastian Coe.

The academy’s mission is to create social change through sport by taking on various projects throughout the world. In its first formal meeting back in 2000 in South Africa, Nelson Mandela stated that “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire”.

“It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can awaken hope where was previously only despair.” This is a belief that Moses whole-heartedly shares.

With the Laureus World Sports Awards taking place on Sunday and Monday in Barcelona, Spain, BlackAthlete.com spoke with Edwin Moses on the eve of the event about his work with the academy and his career as one of the most celebrated figures in the history of American athletics.

BlackAthlete.com: When and how did you become Chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy?

Moses presents China's Liu Xiang with the Sportsman of the Year Award at the Laureus World Sports Awards in 2004

Moses presents China's Liu Xiang with the Sportsman of the Year Award at the Laureus World Sports Awards in 2004

Edwin Moses: I was nominated, or I guess you could say drafted for the job in 2000, the first year of the Laureus World Sports Awards. I was one of thirty-five academy members at the time. At our first formal event in Monte Carlo, we were asked to decide who we wanted as Chair. And since I had prior experience dealing with non-profit organizations, they selected me. So that was it. The whole process took about two minutes. I’m honored to be the spokesperson and to speak on behalf of all these great athletes who have decided to use sports as a tool for social change.

BASN: For the Laureus World Sports Awards, what qualities does the academy look for in a nominee?

Moses: Well first of all, let me tell you how nominees are selected. About one thousand journalists around the world nominate people. They follow all of the sports – cricket, rugby, cycling – everything. They give us a list of five members in each category, then the academy members vote from the list of names given to us. We have a dossier and video package on each candidate. The ballots are all handled by TD Waterhouse in London; it’s all confidential. Only a few people know beforehand who the winners are. I’m one of them, because I have to contact the winners. It’s done in a very legitimate way. We don’t just look at the sports that get the most publicity. You don’t have to be in a major sport to win. We have had winners from motor racing, gymnastics, ice skating, rugby. We have academy members who can give us a perspective on what an accomplishment means within a sport. And we look at the personal integrity of the athletes as well as their accomplishments.

Moses speaks at the 2005 Laureus World Sports Awards in Portugal

Moses speaks at the 2005 Laureus World Sports Awards in Portugal

BASN: I know that the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation does work all over the world, but when you say that you want to use sport as a vehicle for social change, in what way does your organization serve that purpose?

Moses: We don’t build tracks, we don’t build basketball courts, nor do we coach athletes or train athletes. We have iconic figures involved in our academy, and we trot out their reputations. All around the world, the kids ranging from three years old to young adults, and sometimes even adults – they respond to these legendary athletes and want to be involved. They understand that sports is a big thing because sports is marketed so widely throughout the world. So we use the actual sporting aspect of it to entice the kids to subject themselves to the [social] agency or the project. In South Africa we have a project dealing with kids living out on the street. A lot of these kids, their parents die young, so they end up on their own at age ten or twelve. By using sports and getting them to participate, we are able to deal with that particular social issue. We very carefully pick the type of projects that we deal with. We look at the agency’s books, their personnel, their track record, so we don’t have to re-create the wheel in order to do a project. We basically fund them and let them do their thing.

BASN: What kind of hands-on things do the athletes do?

Moses: We give a lot of motivational talks, we take them on expeditions. And just playing with the kids, putting ourselves in their environment, is what we’re all about. We’re not there to coach them or recruit them for anything. The social people who work for the agencies stay in and around the area on a social-working basis. We lend them a helping hand, and we also help them with marketing and personnel. We train some of their people to deal with some of the business issues. And they have young people that they mentor. That way they’re able to create a legacy.

BASN: Being the Chairman of a global organization committed to social change, do you think African-American youths need to see more people like you in such positions of leadership? Particularly outside the realm of athletics?

Moses: To be frank, I’ve found that doing good things doesn’t always get a lot of exposure. Laureus is a worldwide organization, but we find it difficult to spread the word in the United States, and a lot of people don’t even know I’m the chairman of the organization. In general, the African-American community has no idea that this is what I’m doing. There’s so much negativism when it comes to sports stars – the bar fights, drunk driving, gun-toting – they’re the ones who are featured in the sports pages; they’re featured before a lot of other people who are African-Americans who are doing good things. So there is very biased reporting in that sense. People like to talk about how important role-modeling is, but it’s easier for the mainstream journalists to concentrate on the negative, so that’s what they do.

BASN: Back in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, many African-American sports stars were the products of historically black colleges and universities. You were one yourself, having attended Morehouse in Atlanta. Why are HBCUs no longer producing great athletes?

Moses: Thirty years ago, forty years ago, only the major powers were recruiting African-American athletes en masse. Adolph Rupp was the coach of Kentucky when I was growing up, and he didn’t want any blacks on his team. Now it’s all changed. It’s hard to find a white face (on the court) at the NCAA (basketball) championships. Many NFL hall-of-famers came from small black colleges, but not many current stars. It’s more difficult for HBCUs to be competitive because these guys are going to other schools that can offer them so much more. Sports is marketed to African-Americans as – you come to our school to do sports. It’s all in the marketing.

BASN: Coming from an HBCU with limited resources – Morehouse didn’t even have a track – how were you able to become an Olympic hurdling champion?

Moses: I had the passion for the sport and the willingness to make a difference. I taught myself how to hurdle from the very beginning. I was just lucky that I enjoyed track & field. I was a junkie. Coming out of high school, I wasn’t good enough to get a scholarship. But it’s all about performance in this sport; it doesn’t matter if you’re not at the Olympic level, because you can enjoy it as long as you’re making progress. I loved the sport so much that I was willing to climb fences, break into stadiums, just so I could practice. I had no idea that I’d be so good. At Morehouse I was very focused, and that enabled me to excel. I was a physics student and an athlete. That’s it. No clubs or fraternities.

BASN: An element of the legend of Edwin Moses was your ability to take thirteen strides between the hurdles throughout the entire 400 meter race. How were you able to do that?

Moses: I ran a lot of cross country in the off-season, I did a lot of hill work, so I had the power to sustain that kind of running. I did some serious, hard training. And I wasn’t afraid to take a chance at failing. It’s a lot easier to take fourteen strides between the hurdles and be comfortable. But I didn’t want to be comfortable; I wanted to run faster. I was able to switch lead legs, but taking thirteen strides, I didn’t have to. I led with my left leg. And on the curve, a right-leg lead would have to run wider in the lane. By leading with the left I was able to stay right on the line. I was running exactly 400 meters. I’m sure that helped me too. I had four months between my first [400m hurdle] race and the Olympic championship. So the over-distance training and the hills are what gave me the strength to maintain my speed. And my willingness to take chances is what enabled me to thirteen-step the whole way.

BASN: Do you follow track these days?

Moses: No I don’t follow track too closely because it’s difficult. It’s not on TV as much as it used to be. Track isn’t as popular now in the US as it was in my time because we don’t have the personalities. When I was competing there was myself, [Renaldo] Skeets [Nehemiah], Evelyn Ashford, Carl Lewis. Plus I ran during the time of the cold war. That element was important. Now we don’t have that. Track & field is really down all over the world. I just came from Serbia, where they’re trying to put together a meet, and the organizers were complaining that they don’t have the personalities to market it.

BASN: Then when big personalities do come along, they get in trouble for using performance-enhancing drugs.

Moses: Yes, that’s true. That’s been happening a lot. And that sets back the sport.

BASN: Thank you for your time. I know you’re a busy man with a busy schedule.

Moses: You’re quite welcome. It’s my pleasure.