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Edwin Moses and the Engineering of World Records

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1984 Summer Olympics, USA Edwin Moses (924) in action during hurdle race, Los Angeles, Calif., 28 July - 12 August 1984 (Photo by Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
1984 Summer Olympics, USA Edwin Moses (924) in action during hurdle race, Los Angeles, Calif., 28 July - 12 August 1984 (Photo by Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

When you come across a list of famous people who are engineers, it typically contains celebrities who started with an education in engineering but then switched to something completely different: think of Rowan Atkinson, Cindy Crawford, or Montel Williams. Left off these lists is Edwin Moses, who used his training in engineering and related disciplines to turn himself into one of the greatest athletes of the twentieth century.

Ask sports fans of a certain age about Moses, and they’ll remember him as the dominant track and field star of the 1970s-1980s. He appeared out of virtually nowhere at the Games of the XXI Olympiad in Montreal in 1976, winning the 400-meter intermediate hurdles in a world record time of 47.64 seconds just three months after taking up the event in earnest. The next year, Moses commenced an unparalleled winning streak of 122 races that lasted until 1987, during which he broke his world record three more times, down to 47.02, and won gold again at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. (The U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 prevented him from a likely third gold medal.) By then his streak and dominance--as well as his steady, logical, and persistent calls for drug testing and financial reform of track and field’s “amateur” status--earned him the honor of carrying the flag for the Americans at the opening ceremonies.

What made Moses so dominant for so long? Part of the back story to his athletic success is his technical background. Americans watching the hurdles final in 1976 heard announcer Keith Jackson report that Moses hailed from tiny Morehouse College, where he was majoring in “math and physics.” Wrapping up the medal ceremony, ABC’s Jim McKay hailed Moses as “one of the brightest kids in the class, on an academic scholarship . . . now the Olympic champion and world record holder.” Over time, as Moses added to his laurels, he explained that the secret to his success lay largely in his approach to training. From drawing on what he learned and read about biomechanics and systems engineering in the 1970s to his early adoption of digital monitors and personal computers in the 1980s, Moses drew on the knowledge and tools of engineering to make his work as efficient and productive as possible. Despite the title of his undergraduate degree, we can say, then, that he was an engineer in pursuit of biomechanical athletic excellence.

The second son of two high school administrators in Dayton, Ohio, Moses was “pretty much like Urkel” on the sitcom Family Matterss. His parents encouraged his interests in science and technology through summer schools, encyclopedia sets, and model rockets. Moses recalled participating in the first computer science class at Fairview High School, the summer before ninth grade. A “military town” because of its proximity to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton obtained time shared access to the base’s computer system. Moses learned to code in Basic on punched tape and wrote his first program to find the sum of the squares in the Pythagorean equation.

By the end of high school in 1973, Moses had taken all the mathematics classes available and scored especially well in chemistry and biology. He also had an undistinguished record in sports. The football coach kicked him off the team for being undersized, and in his senior year he finished fourth in the city championship 120-yard high hurdles. His college choices depended therefore on his academic interests. Interested in a career in the emerging field of biomedical engineering or possibly orthopedic surgery, Edwin and his parents settled on two options. One was Ohio State University, which initiated its biomedical center within the Electrical Engineering Department in 1971; it was focused initially, however, on graduate education.

The other was Morehouse College in Atlanta, to which his mother was alerted at an educators conference. A small black men’s college with an outstanding reputation, best known at the time for its alumnus Martin Luther King, Morehouse had offered a degree in physics since the beginning of the 20th century. In 1969, as part of a trend employed by other small colleges like Ithaca or Reed, it instituted a dual-degree program in which students completed a physics B.S. in three years before attending Georgia Tech for two more to earn a second degree in engineering. Morehouse offered Moses a full academic scholarship, after which his parents drove south and dropped him off “with a big trunk.”

Moses began his studies with the intention of majoring in chemistry en route to his engineering degree. Developing his own method of calculating molar values, however, led to a falling out with the department chair by the end of freshman year. He fell back on physics, a department dominated by Dr. Carl Spight, who majored in electrical engineering at Purdue before receiving his M.A. and Ph.D. in physics at Princeton. A versatile and pragmatic scientist, Spight drove his students hard while promoting the intellectual need to be “precise and concise.” Moses found out later that some of the textbooks were also used at CalTech’s graduate school. Of the 25 students who took a second year of physics, only three or four finished the major. “A lot of the students weren’t willing to do the math,” Moses observed, mentioning his work with triple integrals and LaPlace operators, as well as advanced courses in electromagnetic, mechanical, and thermodynamic theory: “They had it all for us.”

Two years into his new program, Moses hit a figurative hurdle when he won the Olympic gold medal. This was not the performance he anticipated when he arrived at Morehouse. It had a track team, but no track; in addition, his father forbade him from competition his freshman year because of disappointing grades. Moses trained with the team, suffering from shin splints as he grew in height and weight, and from the coach’s emphasis on distance. The transition to longer or higher hurdle races also posed challenges in technique that the coach could not help with. Moses blended information from multiple sources, not least his coursework and whatever he could read on biomechanics. During his first two summers he worked out with the Philadelphia Hawks Track Club at the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field before and after an internship at Lukens Steel Company in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. There he input data on worker efficiency in lining new blast furnaces with bricks into a computer as part of the company’s PERT program. Both experiences offered insights and structures applicable to hurdles training.

Not until the spring of 1976 did Moses turn to what became his domain. His endurance, 37-inch inseam, technique, and maintenance of thirteen steps between all ten of the 36-inch intermediate hurdles made him a fast-rising star. In a series of meets across the country he improved in speed--from 50.1 to 48.8--and confidence. After winning his event at the Penn Relays and running fourth in the national championship, Moses convinced Hugh Gloster, the president of Morehouse, to grant him $3,000 for the Olympic Trials and support over the summer: “If you give me the chance to go to the Olympics, I will break the world record and win the gold medal.”

Moses proved as good as his word and then returned to finish his studies. His astonishing athletic success led him to abandoning the dual degree, however, leading instead to a thorough grounding and a B.S. in physics. This took him to the General Dynamics division in Pomona, California, in the fall of 1978. There he started working as an associate test engineer while training at Mt. San Antonio College’s Hilmer Lodge Stadium. This facility and its annual relay festival were “on the other side of the hill,” Moses recalled of the legendary training ground for sprinters. “General Dynamics was very supportive, especially of black engineers. . . . They allowed me schedule flexibility and time off to train and compete, even before this was legalized as an acceptable means of support for ‘amateur athletes.’" Moses checked out systems on the F16 fighter jet, Tomahawk cruise and Stinger missiles, and the Phalanx close-in weapon system, and trained before and after work. For the Tomahawk, Moses tracked simulated flights over the Pacific Ocean on a testbed, “looking in the black box for errors, 0s for 1s and 1s for 0s.” He also enrolled in the EE master’s program at Cal State Fullerton but had to abandon it: “I just didn’t have the time.”

By 1980, Moses had been undefeated for three years, broken his world record, and was preparing to defend his title at the Moscow Olympics. He approached training as a holistic pursuit, synthesizing practice with rest and diet. He increasingly quantified his training, thanks in part to an encounter with the Finns who started Polar in 1977. The next year Moses began using Polar’s first product, the Tunturi Pulser fingertip heart-rate monitor: “I wish I’d gotten a franchise.” He also measured the entire Mission Viejo golf course in segments where he also tracked his running times, recovery times, and heart rates during both phases throughout workouts.

Although President Jimmy Carter cancelled American participation at Moscow, Moses toured Europe on both sides of the Iron Curtain that summer, set a new world record, and resigned from General Dynamics when he could not remember his itinerary during a security debriefing. “I started with a Confidential clearance, which was raised to Secret because I had access to circuitry. But when they asked me to name all the hotels that I’d stayed in while running in Hungary, Poland. . . ”

Moses gave up $22,000 a year as a professional engineer to earn an order of magnitude more in income in races and sponsorships. Adidas paid up to $100,000 annually for his shoe endorsement, Polar something less, and race appearance fees rose from $4,000 each in 1977 to $30,000-40,000 ten years later. Maximizing income meant maximizing performance and maintaining it, which meant maximizing the quality of training and minimizing or preventing injuries. “My education in physics and engineering gave me the research methodology by which I could prepare efficiently and effectively.” Moses invested in a $3,000 Epson QX-10 computer in 1983 and used its ValDocs software package to input all his training records in the spreadsheet application for comparison and analysis. Always working without a coach in the years before the U.S. Olympics Committee (USOC) began actively assisting and education athletes, Moses analyzed his data and fed it back into his training regimen. He also hired Ken Yoshino, a physical therapist who pioneered in muscle relaxation and recovery techniques.

All good things must come to an end. For Moses it was in 1987, when Danny Harris ended his winning streak. Moses followed with ten more wins, including the 1987 World Championship before finishing third at the Seoul Olympics in a faster time than in either of his gold medal races. That was his last competition; 25 years after retiring from the track, he still holds four of the seven fastest times in the 400 hurdles, and ten of the top 25. In the latter list, no one else has more three.

What does a superstar do for an encore? “I didn’t have a concerted vision of where I was going to go,” mused Moses on the course of his post-track career. “There were no role models.” While earning an MBA at Pepperdine (“Business math is easy after physics and engineering”) and becoming a financial consultant, he remained involved in track and field’s national and international efforts to stop the use of performance-enhancing drugs, chairing the USOC’s committee on substance abuse, research, and education. In 2000 Moses was appointed chair of the Laureus World Sports Academy to promote sports as a means of improving societies around the world.

Ten years ago, George Zobrist wrote in this publication of engineering as a “steppingstone” to other professions. Engineers enjoy an unusual breadth of education and cultivate a logical approach to solving problems in a wide variety of fields. Edwin Moses is another example of an engineer who has put his technical skills and training to work elsewhere, on and off the track, with significant results.

Further Reading

“Edwin Moses Wins Gold Medal – 1976 Olympic Games,” Youtube, accessed 5 March 2013.

“Edwin Moses Wins Gold Medal – 1984 Olympic Games,” Youtube, accessed 5 March 2013.

"Friends Say Moses had Idea He would Win,” Rome (Ga.) News-Tribunene, July 28, 1976, p. 11A.

Curry Kirkpatrick, “The Man Who Never Loses,” Sports Illustrated, July 30, 1984, accessed 12 March 2013.

Kyle York, “Edwin Moses,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, accessed 12 March 2013.