Greene Was A Class Act To The End

By Philip Hersh
Updated: February 17, 2008

LOS ANGELES — It isn’t easy to write a retirement valedictory for a great Olympic track and field athlete these days.

Every journalist has become leery of celebrating achievements in a sport riddled with doping problems, even if the athlete involved never has failed a drug test. Marion Jones made fools of us all, even those with enough sense to bring up the likelihood of her drug use long before she admitted it.

So I have spent two weeks thinking about what, if anything, should be said about Maurice Greene, the Olympic and three-time world 100-meter champion who announced his retirement Feb. 3 in Beijing, where the man everyone called “Mo” once had hoped to end his career at the 2008 Olympics.

Greene’s decision to quit was no surprise. He barely had been able to train the last two years and has been all but retired since winning a bronze medal in the 100 at the 2004 Olympics, a performance that was, in its own way, as impressive as those that earned him world and Olympic gold.

After struggling with injuries all of 2003, Greene was deservedly so pleased with that bronze it inspired him to take a victory lap at the Athens Olympic Stadium, saying later he wanted to thank the fans for helping him have a “lovely time” in Greece.

This was how I described the scene: “Greene looked a little confused at the end of his lap of honor, as if he were wondering where everyone had gone. Maybe it was right that he should have been left there alone.

“He has been a singular presence in the sport, this sprinter who gets ready for each race with a strutting, tongue-wagging, shoulder-rolling show. As Greene simply walked around the track, hearing a few derisive whistles as he waved to the fans, he deserved to be thanked for all his lovely times.”

I don’t know what Greene put in his body.

I do know this: — He was not among the nearly two dozen leading track athletes implicated in the BALCO doping scandal.

— He never had a positive drug test during a decade at or near the top of his sport.

— He slowed down noticeably and frequently was injured after age 30 and, unlike Roger Clemens after age 33, had no second coming.

Anyway, it wasn’t what Greene did on the track that has made me feel remiss about not giving him props a final time.

It was the way he treated me and, I can safely say, all the media.

I should preface what follows by saying nearly all U.S. Olympic athletes, even the richest and most famous, are uncommonly cooperative and gracious, especially compared with the condescension and rudeness common among those in the so-called professional sports.

Swimmer Jenny Thompson allowed me to spend a day with her at medical school. Snake-fancying pole vaulter Jeff Hartwig took me on a tour of reptile shops in St. Louis. Figure skater Michelle Kwan invited me to sit with her courtside for a Lakers game so I could see how she balanced celebrity and reality.

Skier Daron Rahlves always was willing to talk when I called. Hurdler Allen Johnson gave me hours at his home in South Carolina for a story that never made the paper because it was scheduled for the day of the 2004 Olympic final, and Johnson fell in the semis. When I explained that to him a year later, Johnson nearly apologized to me for his mishap.

I could give many more examples, but the one that matters here involves Maurice Greene.

About four months before the 2000 Olympics, I interviewed Greene in Los Angeles. To save time, we were to do some of the interview in a trailer on the set of a commercial he was shooting.

Greene suggested we might have more interview time if I rode with him from UCLA, where I watched his practice, to the commercial shoot about five miles east.

After getting there, a self-important go-fer in the production company tried twice to get me out of the trailer where I was to talk to Greene. Each time, Greene stepped in on my behalf to say that the arrangement was fine.

When Greene finished the shoot, and we finished the 90-minute interview, I started to call a cab to get back to my car at UCLA. He insisted on driving me, even though it was the opposite direction from where he was going and would force him to battle rush-hour traffic.

As it turned out, I didn’t use as much of the interview as planned because Greene pulled up with a sore hamstring in the infamous 200-meter final with Michael Johnson (who also pulled up) at the 2000 Olympic trials.

Some stuff made it into my story about Greene winning the 100 meters at the 2000 Olympics, but I always felt a little remorse about never having written what originally was to be a full-fledged blowout on him. Too late for that now. But this is the time to say thank you to an athlete whose career was defined by ticks of a stopwatch yet seemed to understand the measure of his life would be more than races that lasted less than 10 seconds.