In high school, among the many sports in which I competed, track and field was my favorite; and, it was the one in which I excelled. My all-time favorite track star until I graduated from high school was Jesse Owens. In 1976, fourteen years after I’d given up on ever becoming a star on the cinders, I added another star to my list of track athletes who I admired above all others – Edwin Moses. Moses took the gold medal for the 400 meter hurdles in the 1976 Olympics, and then repeated this feat in 1984. Between 1977 and 1987, he won 107 consecutive finals in 122 races and set the world record for the event four times.
This was the kind of track star I had always aspired to be. Not only was he fantastic on the track, but off as well; working to reform Olympic eligibility and drug testing. I read everything that was printed about his exploits. Here was an athlete who was the best role model for aspiring young athletes that one could ever hope to find. Unlike many stars who let their fame go to their heads, and who often engaged in questionable off-track behavior, Moses was not only good at his event, but he was a good person as well. Even on those rare occasions when he lost, as when he lost to West Germany’s Harald Schmid in Berlin on August 26, 1977, he was a gentleman. No temper tantrums, or making excuses. He congratulated Schmid, and then went on the next week to beat him by 15 meters in Dusseldorf.
I joined the army after high school, and for the next fifteen years I continued to participate in unit track teams wherever I was stationed. My event was the 800 meter run, an event that I’d excelled in during my high school career. But, in 1978, my hopes of ever becoming a star were dashed when I tore an Achilles tendon. After four months of physical therapy, the tendon healed, but I was never able to achieve the speed I’d attained in high school. I still loved running, though, and continued to follow the sport as new, even faster athletes took to the track.
Until 2003, when I served as the U.S. Ambassador in Cambodia, I’d only encountered my favorite stars on the sports pages and televised track events. It was, then, a total shock when I was invited to a reception hosted by the UNICEF director in Cambodia to promote sports among young Cambodians, to find myself shaking hands with none other than Edwin Moses. He’d been invited by the UN to come to Cambodia to kick off the campaign, and my UNICEF colleague had forgotten to inform me that he would be at the reception.
I’m not sure which of us was more shocked; me at getting the chance to talk face-to-face with a man I’d admired for decades, or him to discover that the American ambassador was one of his biggest fans. I spent most of the reception talking to him; a chance like this comes along perhaps once in a lifetime, and I wasn’t about to let it slip away. While one might think that under such circumstances we would talk about sports, in particular about track, we spent the evening talking about his work with young people. I was so fascinated by all that he’d done since retiring from active participation as a hurdler I completely forgot to be nervous. Here was a man who had started out in track at Moorehouse College, a school that didn’t even have its own track, but had still managed to become one of the greatest track stars of his generation. I’ve since met a number of well known athletes and other celebrities, but the one evening that is seared into my memory is that evening in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, when I had a chance to literally rub shoulders with a legend.