LONDON (Reuters) - Betrayed finally by the body which once hurtled along a track faster than any man in the world, Maurice Greene reached journey’s end this month.
At the age of 33, the 2000 Sydney Olympics 100 meters champion conceded that he could not get in shape in time for the Beijing Games and announced his retirement.
“I was getting these little nagging injuries that have just stopped me from training the way that I need to,” Greene told Reuters in a telephone interview from Los Angeles this week.
“It’s a mental battle trying to come back from injuries and I don’t feel like having that mental battle with myself.”
American hegemony in the men’s 100 meters has been taken for granted since the rebirth of the Olympic Games in 1896. In reality, there have been lulls; notably in the 1920s and 1970s and again in the 1990s, the decade when Greene’s raw talent first became apparent in his home town of Kansas City.
After Carl Lewis had run his last great race at the 1991 Tokyo world championships, Linford Christie won the 1992 Olympic title for Britain in Barcelona.
Christie captured the 1993 world title and was then succeeded as world and Olympic champion by another Jamaican-born sprinter, Canadian Donovan Bailey.
Meanwhile, Greene was eliminated in the quarter-finals at the 1995 Gothenburg world championships and, hampered by a hamstring injury, failed to qualify for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics team.
Greene came up the hard way. In Kansas City he worked in fast food outlets, emptied trucks and tore tickets at a movie theatre. Frustrated by his lack of progress in athletics, he decided in 1996 to drive to Los Angeles with his father Ernest to train with John Smith, by common consent the best sprint coach in the world.
“I just told myself I needed a change,” Greene recalled. “If I really wanted to do something I had to go to someplace else. I decided to go to John Smith.
“He worked me very hard. He asked me what I wanted to do and I wanted to be the best in the world.”
Training with the equally competitive Trinidadian Ato Boldon, who was to finish second to the American in Sydney, Greene set out to attain his goal.
“We knew if we both wanted to be successful we had to work together to get to where we wanted to be,” Greene said.
“He taught me things and I learned a lot from him and we began to study the sport more and learn more things about the sport. We became a dynamic duo.”
Greene’s breakthrough came in 1997 when he won the world 100 metres title in Athens. In the following year he set a world indoor 60 metres record of 6.39 seconds which still stands and then came his golden year of 1999 when he clocked a world 100 record of 9.79 seconds in Athens and the first world 100-200 double in Seville.
“Everybody was talking about U.S. sprint domination being over,” Greene said. “As a U.S. athlete I don’t like that kind of talk.”
The 100 record held particular significance for Greene.
Bailey’s mark of 9.84 set at the Atlanta Games was the official mark. But everybody knew that Ben Johnson had clocked 9.79 at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, a record that was never ratified after the Canadian’s positive test for steroids.
“I started to really study races and that’s when I really started to piece together how to run that sort of time,” Greene said.
At the turn of the century, Greene was at the top of the world, a position confirmed in 2000 when he won the Sydney Olympic 100 and anchored the 4x100 relay team to victory.
Then came the 2001 Edmonton world 100 final which developed into what Greene believes was his best and also his most frustrating performance.
Greene hobbled over the line after sustaining quadricep and hamstring injuries. Incredibly he still clocked 9.82 seconds, only 0.08 seconds outside Jamaican Asafa Powell’s current record.
“If you look at the race closely, at 65 metres there was a grimace on my face. I just hobbled the rest of the way. The good Lord let me finish that race and I still ran 9.82,” he said.
Asked what the time would have been had he not been injured, Greene replied: “I would say around 9.6.”
Injuries came increasingly to define Greene’s life, although there was one last chance of glory at the 2004 Athens Olympics when he believes he should have beaten compatriot Justin Gatlin.
Greene eased up in the semi-finals and paid for a slow time by getting lane seven in the final, won by Gatlin ahead of Portuguese Francis Obikwelu with Greene third in the closest Olympic three-way 100 metres finish.
“I should have run all the way through instead of easing up. I would have had a better lane and then I could have felt what was going on in the middle of the track,” he said.
“I basically ran that race blind. I’ve always said I messed that race up, I threw away my gold medal.”
Greene’s record stands comparison with any of his predecessors and his tally of 52 sub-10 second marks, far ahead of Powell’s 33, shows his remarkable consistency.
Asked recently who he considered the greatest 100 metres sprinter ever, Powell did not name Lewis or 1936 Olympic quadruple gold medalist Jesse Owens.
Instead he chose Greene “because of his technical abilities and his consistency over the years.”
“I’m flattered that he would say that about me,” Greene responded. “I would want to believe, hope to believe, that I was up there at the top.”
Editing by Clare Fallon