SHIN SPLINTS REDUX – The Guy Nobody Could Beat

This new series is guest blogged by Doug Logan.

Doug Logan was the CEO for USATF from 2008 until September 2010.  He was also the CEO, President and Commissioner for Major League Soccer from 1995 to 1999.  To read more about his background and involvement in Track, Soccer, Rugby and the Music industry, read my Freelap Friday Five Interview

This is his 10th article. Click here for his entire series.

1984:  Edwin Moses of the USA clears a hurdle en route to his  victory in the men's 400m hurdles final at the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, California.  Moses  mastered the technical and strength requirements of the 400 metres hurdles to suchan extent that for almost a decade he dominated the event without many challengers.  Indeed, he achieved the longest winning streak in athletics with 122 victories between losing to Harold Schmid in Berlin on 26 August 1977 and to Danny Harris on 4 June1987 in Madrid.  During his period of domination, the quality of hurdling improved enormously, but so did Moses.  In Olympic terms, he will seem historically deprived since he missed the Moscow Games through the boycott after winning the title in 1976,won again in 1984 in Los Angeles and in 1988 took the bronze medal. Astonishingly, this was the first time he had been defeated in a championship event.  He set his first world record in the event in 1976 at 47.63 sec and lowered it to 47.02 sec in several stages by 1983 where it stood until Kevin Young of the USA ran 46.79 sec in the Olympic final of 1992.  Moses is now a member of the Athletes Commission of the IOC.  Mandatory Credit: David Cannon/Allsport

Photo Credits: David Cannon/Allsport

SHIN SPLINTS REDUX

The Guy Nobody Could Beat

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

IF- by Rudyard Kipling

(Read the full poem here)

I believe the most important element necessary to win at an elite athletic level is not talent or conditioning or preparation or luck. The key essential for victory at those contests where the pressure and spotlight are nearly overwhelming is the quality of mental toughness. It is an ingredient that is hard to describe and even harder to hone. It requires total focus on the objective and a massive mustering of will to succeed. A win at these competitions is rarely serendipitous; it almost always favors the resolute.

This past weekend at the Open golf tournament in Scotland we witnessed two superb athletes going in opposite directions. Tiger Woods, known throughout his career as the poster-boy of mental toughness, entered the final 18 holes on Sunday in second place and only two strokes off the lead. He proceeded to play a very pedestrian round and finished tied for 6th place. Phil Mickelson, on the other hand, came from several shots back and shot a final round 66 to claim his first Open victory and his fifth Major. Throughout his distinguished career, “Lefty” has been plagued by coming up short on Sunday, including five runner-up finishes in the US Open.

Why the reversal of fortunes? I suggest that Woods has not been the same since he experienced the public shame associated with the exposure of his multiple extramarital affairs and the ultimate costly breakup of his marriage. While he still appears to have the physical talent to win regularly, it seems that when the pressure is the greatest he is unable to mobilize the steely concentration required to succeed under fire. Mickelson has the support of his devoted wife Amy and their three daughters. He has been at Amy’s side as she has battled back from breast cancer, and last month attended his daughter’s graduation even though it required him to take a “red-eye” flight for the opening round of the US Open.

Mickelson has also, very publicly, been fighting chronic psoriatic arthritis. It is apparent that he has become a better golfer and competitor as a result of this adversity in his life. Woods, however, seems distant, distracted and remote. His winning aura has dissipated and he is vulnerable when challenged.

Sports are a showcase for the drama of life and have brought us great examples of individuals who were mentally tough. One of my favorites is Joe Namath, the quarterback for Alabama, the New York Jets, and briefly, the Los Angeles Rams. He is probably most famous for cheekily guaranteeing a victory for the Jets in Super Bowl III, in 1969, despite the fact his opponents, the Baltimore Colts, were favored by 18 points. My favorite Namath anecdote occurred on December 17, 1967. The Jets were playing the Raiders in Oakland when, in the 4th quarter, Ben Davidson, the Raiders’ massive lineman, hit Namath in the face so hard he fractured his cheekbone. Namath reportedly then lunged at the mustachioed Davidson, who outweighed him by over 100lbs. and shouted; “You hit like a girl!”

Over the years, the New York Yankees have fielded many mentally tough players: Reggie Jackson [Mr. October], Paul O’Neil, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, etc. Alex Rodriguez, on the other hand, has been a “soft”, narcissistic competitor with huge talent and a propensity to fold when pressured. The toughest baseball competitor I ever saw play, however, was Bob Gibson who pitched for the Cardinals for 17 seasons. His Hall of Fame statistics [251 wins, 3,117 strikeouts, 2.91 earned run average] included two Cy Young Awards and the 1968 NL MVP Award. He is distinguished by more than his stats; batters hated to step up to the plate against him. He sent a clear message to every opponent:”You are not going to hit the ball.”

The toughest competitor I ever saw was Edwin Moses. I still believe his “streak” of 107 consecutive final race victories in the 400m hurdles over 9 years and 9 months [August 26, 1977-June 4, 1987] is the greatest sports achievement of all time. To me it is more impressive than Joe DiMaggio’s 56 consecutive games with a hit. To stay so focused against any and all comers in races all over the world is the pinnacle of resolve. He was once asked how he would like to be remembered and he answered as “the guy nobody could beat”.

There have been other athletes whose determination I have admired: Larry Bird and Michael Jordan in basketball, the boxers Teofilo Stevenson and Rocky Marciano, NCAA women’s basketball coach Pat Summit, Michelle Akers in women’s soccer, Jimmy Connors in tennis, the French soccer players Zinedine Zidane and Michel Platini.

It remains to be seen whether Tiger Woods can conquer his demons and return to his position as the unbeatable force on the golf course. I doubt it. And, we will all be watching Phil Mickelson to see whether he has turned the corner at age 43 and learned how to harness his immense talent. I’m rooting for him.

Ain’t sports great?

  • I totally agree that Edwin Moses’ streak is the most impressive steak in any sports. A total of 122 races (107 of them finals), included in that streak were three World Cup titles, a World Championship, and an Olympic Gold (remember the 1980 Olympics were boycotted — moreover he won Olympic Gold in 1976 prior to his streak and only in his first year of running the 400mH). His Olympic success is truly remarkable: 1976 Gold, 1980 boycott (the winning time was a paltry 48.70), 1984 Gold, 1988 Bronze — still running 47.56 from Lane 3. That time (47.56) would have won gold in Athens and London and nearly won in Atlanta (47.54) and Sydney (47.50).

    The most impressive thing to me is the event in which he did it in. People outside track don’t understand that the 400m hurdles is arguable the most grueling of all the track events (800m and 400m being the other two events I’d concede to). And even now, 30 years after his 47.02 World Record — only one person has run faster…and only once.

    I’ve been wanting to write a tribute on my blog. Thanks for doing it here!

    • The most difficult activity in sport is hitting a baseball. You are rarely successful. 56 games is incredible and 72 out of 73 which included the 56 makes it even more incredible. I saw most of Moses’ races, great yes but not the same.