Edwin Moses: ‘We all knew doping was happening … it was a dark period

The two-time Olympic 400m hurdles champion on his fight against doping, his amazing unbeaten streak and meeting Nelson Mandela

By Donald McRae | The Guardian | February 6 2020

The number 999 is burned into Edwin Moses’s psyche. He holds the greatest winning streak in athletics for, as a two-times Olympic champion over 400m hurdles, Moses was unbeaten for nine years, nine months and nine days.

From August 1977 to June 1987, he won 122 consecutive races but the worldly American, who is also a physicist and the chairman emeritus of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, has spent enough time in other countries, such as Britain, to know 999 is also the number to call in an emergency.

For much of his life the struggle against doping has felt like an emergency to Moses. It explains why he has been at the forefront of anti-doping for 32 years and why, even now, he is such a vocal proponent of clean sport.

Moses has helped lead the clampdown on Russia’s state-sponsored doping programme. He continues to monitor the situation in regard to a likely blanket ban on all Russian athletes competing in this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, even as “authorised neutrals”, and he is heartened that last week World Athletics hardened its stance. Real changes and genuine contrition need to be shown by the Russian Athletics Federation to avoid the ban on all its individual athletes. This is a fight Moses has waged for decades.

“That’s why I worked out three times a day,” he says when asked if he felt the shadow of doping among his rivals even when he seemed invincible as an athlete. “I ate properly. I had a great stretching programme. I had a great physical therapist. I did all kinds of innovative training exercises. I swam. Did weights. But I also did it because I knew it would make me the best.”

This was not the template used by cheating athletes. “We all knew it was happening,” Moses says. “We knew doping was wide scale because there was no drug testing – beyond being able to detect drugs for three or four days. It was unabated.

“I’m a physicist. I’ve got a biology and chemistry background. I wanted to be a doctor. So I was shocked when I went to the 1976 Olympics and saw some of the eastern bloc women. They were much more manly than me.

“Then, in the 1980s, more athletes used performance-enhancing drugs because out-of-competition testing did not exist. There was no test for testosterone or growth hormones then. EPO was brand new. So there was unabated use of these drugs all over the world.

“A few athletes spoke up but many made comments out of expediency. It was a dark period in my sport and it’s continued for a long time. It’s finally changing now but I was one of the few who spoke out at the start. People who protest, and do the right thing, usually don’t have anything to gain. I was winning anyway so there was nothing for me to gain. I could have done nothing and track and field would have been worse than it is today. I made a difference. That’s why we have out-of-competition drug testing – because of what I and a few others did in 1988.”

Edwin Moses

Moses crosses the line to win gold in the 400m hurdles at the LA Olympics in 1984. Photograph: Colorsport/Shutterstock

Athletics has never recovered from its loss of legitimacy in the aftermath of the dirtiest race in history, the 100m final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when Ben Johnson, the initial winner, failed a drug test. Serious questions, at the very least, have been raised over the other seven finalists. Moses, who won bronze in the 400m hurdles at those Games, when he was 33 and competing in his final Olympics, felt an even sharper desire to clean up his sport.

After Ben Johnson, I put together a group of 10 US athletes. We demanded [out-of-competition] testing in the US. We got the money and legislation and drew up the drug programme from scratch because no one had ever done it. We got it ratified and the following year the US Olympic Committee adopted our programme. I became the chief of US testing from 1989 to 1994.

“There was no such thing as Wada [the World Anti-Doping Agency] and, in the US, I was chairman of the committee for the big six Olympic sports. I negotiated agreements to test athletes and that was the first testing outside competition.”

The 64-year-old Moses seems energised by World Athletics. “They’re doing an outstanding battle in the fight against doping and hopefully the corrupt people are gone. The news [last Thursday] was great. World Athletics put out a statement saying unless the Russians apologise for the last transgression [when their federation conspired to hide the truth with the 2018 world indoor high jump champion, Danil Lysenko, who missed three doping tests], they’re rescinding the possibility of their athletes competing in Tokyo. Period. They’ll stop all of them.”

At the world championships in Doha last October, 29 Authorised Neutral Athletes from Russia won six medals – despite their country being banned for four years. “The ones they allowed to compete [in Doha] were tested as much as anyone else. If they can’t show the same evidence there’s no reason to let them compete. I feel that way about any athlete from the many areas of the world where there’s very little testing. But this latest news is significant. Someone’s got to stand up for the right thing.”

Does he expect Russia to back down and apologise? “No. I doubt it.”

Moses is justifiably proud of his role in toughening up Wada – as the anti-doping agency seemed subservient to the International Olympic Committee. Moses and Beckie Scott, the chair of Wada’s Athlete Committee, became embroiled in a row with the organisation. Scott said she was “bullied” in 2018 over her opposition to reinstating Russia’s anti-doping agency. Moses supported Scott and he was told to “shut up” by some Wada officials.

I think the strain in anti-doping politics has been taken out because the leadership has changed

“I’m proud that – alongside Beckie and others on the athletes’ commission – we forced Wada to look at its governance,” Moses says. “Hopefully we’ve been able to fix some of Wada’s problems. Changes were made to bring an ethical balance to the way Wada is run internally. The Russians got caught red-handed and the evidence was clear from two investigations.

“But politically it was perceived differently because of the money Russia puts into sports. If it had been a completely independent group that had nothing to do with international federations or the IOC, it would not have dragged on. At Wada they had federation guys and IOC guys who were not looking out for the best [anti-doping] interests. That was the innate problem. We forced them to deal with those issues.”