Fire on the Track?
Maurice Greene and the joy of racing.
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If there is one thing the sodium bicarbonate inside a dry chemical fire extinguisher wants to do, it is get out. Sure, it might also want to help put out a small fire by smothering it once it is out of the nozzle, but inside, it is packed down with so much pressure and nowhere to go that it will burst free any chance it gets. There is a siphon that can carry the sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda, up to the nozzle and out into the world, but first, someone needs to pull out the safety pin and press the extinguisher’s operating lever. That lever would then push an actuating rod into a spring-mounted valve, opening a passage from the siphon to the nozzle. At the same time, the actuating rod would pierce a gas cylinder release valve. That gas would then escape, putting downward pressure on the sodium bicarbonate, which would rush down and then up through the siphon, into the nozzle, and out into the world, where it could put out a fire.
On May 22, 2004, a red fire extinguisher sat inside hurdler Larry Wade’s duffle bag on the infield of the Home Depot Athletic Center track in Carson, California, south of Los Angeles just before the 100-meter dash. The pressurized sodium bicarbonate inside, like the baking soda trapped in many fire extinguishers around the world, was itching to get out.
All it needed was a fire.
Or some blue Adidas track spikes.
If there was one thing Maurice Greene wanted to do as he settled into the starting blocks at the Home Depot Athletic Center track May 22, 2004, it was to get out as fast as he possibly could. Then, of course, he wanted to get to the finish line 100 meters away as quickly as possible, too. Greene was the reigning Olympic champion, and four years after taking Sydney gold, he felt like he needed to run fast in Carson.
In fact, many had written him off after his performances in 2002 and 2003. He won his third consecutive world championship in the 100 meters in 2001 in Edmonton and took the U.S. title in the 100 in 2002, but he was nowhere near the top of his game in 2002 or 2003. “When he was beaten in [the 2003] world championships in Paris,” read a profile of Greene in The Guardian, “after a disappointing string of performances in 2002, he appeared to be a sprinter who had passed his peak and was heading down the other side. Fast.”
Greene did not publicize it at the time, but in January 2002, while driving his motorcycle on a freeway in Los Angeles, a car knocked him off the bike. He was able to drive to the hospital, where he discovered his left leg was broken. Only months earlier, Tim Montgomery had run 9.78 for 100 meters to break Greene’s world record by one-hundredth of a second. Greene worked hard to get back into shape, too hard. He struggled with hamstring and quadricep injuries and tendinitis in 2002 and 2003, when he was unable to defend his world championship.
After the 2003 season, however, his body finally started agreeing with him again. Greene told me that while he was back into shape physically, he also needed to train his mentality, too. He meditated often, focusing on staying calm and collected. “I am still capable of doing everything,” he told himself as he readied for the Olympic year.
That 2004 season had gotten off to a mixed start. Greene ran 10.02 seconds into a headwind at the Mt. SAC Relays in April but had to scratch from a 100-meter final that Montgomery won in France one week later and only managed a 10.04-second run in Osaka May 8. The Carson meet, which Greene was considering a home meet, needed to be a step in the right direction. Training was going well, and thanks to the positive self-talk and meditation, he felt ready.
The sport, Greene knew, was in a bad spot, too. Tim Montgomery, who had broken Greene’s 100-meter world record of 9.79 by one-hundredth of a second in 2002, was in the middle of the BALCO investigation that would eventually bring down stars like Marion Jones and Barry Bonds. It seemed to Greene that whenever track and field was in the news, it was because of a doping violation. (Montgomery was officially charged in 2005, and his 9.78 was wiped from the record books.)
“At that time,” Greene told me, “there was a lot of bad talking going on about the sport. So, I just wanted to do something good—get some positive talking about the sport.”
About four or five days before the race, Greene and one of his training partners, hurdler Larry Wade, were driving to or from practice in L.A. With Greene at the wheel, they were talking about fun ways to celebrate after a race. Wade wanted Greene to put on a cape like James Brown and his “Godfather of Soul” garment after a win. Greene had also dusted off his shoes a few times after a race, something both he and Wade thought was a solid, if not show-stopping, celebration. Then Greene spotted a hardware store. He took a hard left turn and pulled into the lot.
“What are you doing, man?” Wade said.
“I’m gonna go get a fire extinguisher,” Greene told him. “When I finish, I want you to come out and spray my shoes like they’re on fire.”
Wade was all in. “I’ve got you,” he said. “We gotta do it.”
They bought a dry chemical fire extinguisher at the hardware store and went on their way. Wade kept the extinguisher. On May 22, he put it into his backpack along with everything else he needed for the track meet. He was running the 110 hurdles that day.
Greene, meanwhile, was on the start line of the 100-meter dash. And to be honest, he had forgotten about the fire extinguisher. He was in race mode, and there was no time to worry about what was in store at the end. He paced back and forth in his lane, across the start line and back again 100 meters from the finish. Donning his speed suit and blue Adidas spikes with silver stripes, his strut oozed confidence. The field of competitors was solid but not spectacular. He was the favorite to win, but Greene was doing his best to prep himself mentally for the rest of the season, too.
So, when he settled into his blocks after the race official announced, “Runners to your mark,” Greene was ready to burst at the crack of the gun. When the starter said, “Set,” Greene slowly rose from the blocks into a crouch. In a much lower position than the rest of his competitors when the pistol fired, Greene shot out like a cannonball. He beat everyone out of the blocks, slowly rising while his feet motored below him, and the race was over by the time he was out of his dry phase. It was classic Maurice Greene. He floated away from the field, his wide, powerful torso powering its way over the track. When he crossed the finish line, the clock flashed 9.87. It was his fastest time of the year. It would be adjusted to 9.86, but the wind reading of +4.6 meters per second made the time wind aided.
About 20 meters across the finish line, he stopped quickly and turned around in a bounce. Greene looked like he was going to show some appreciation to the crowd in the stands. Then, out of the corner of his eye as he jogged back to the straightaway, he spotted Wade, who made eye contact with him.
“Oh, yeah,” Greene thought, “let’s do it.”
If there was one thing Wade wanted as he watched the 100 meters from the infield of the Home Depot Athletic Center Track May 22, 2004, it was to see Maurice Greene win. Then, of course, he wanted to spray his shoes with a fire extinguisher. Standing on the infield as Greene’s race was about to go off, Wade pulled the safety pin from the fire extinguisher. He had never used one, he would later tell me, but he knew this was the first step. Then, all he would have to do is press the operating lever, and sodium bicarbonate would spray everywhere. First, though, Greene needed to win.
Wade needed to, as well. In fact, it was critical to the fire extinguisher plan that Wade remained on the infield after his race. The only way that was going to happen was if he won, and was allowed to stay near the track for television interviews. Wade kept up his end of the bargain, running 13.12 seconds to take the race. After chatting with the press, he went over to his bag. The fire extinguisher was still waiting for him. He pulled the safety pin and looked back toward Greene and the rest of the 100-meter field, keeping the extinguisher in the bag. “I couldn’t pull it out and have somebody see it,” Wade told me, laughing. He had done everything he could. Now, he needed Greene to win. And Wade was sure he would.
Standing next to his bag, he watched Greene fly out of the blocks and soar across the track for the win. As soon as Greene crossed the line, Wade pulled the fire extinguisher out of his bag. He saw Greene turn around and head back down the straightaway of the track, and that’s when he realized Greene had forgotten about the celebration. Then they made eye-contact. Both said, “Let’s go.”
Just as he got to the finish line, Greene began to hop back and forth on his feet, jumping as if he were walking on coals. After only a few steps, he bent down and tore off his shoes, left foot then right foot, leaving them on the ground near the finish line. Just as he pulled off his right foot, Wade jumped onto the track from the infield, the extinguisher in the ready to shoot position. “I could barely believe that no one even tried to stop me,” Wade said and laughed.
Greene jumped away from the shoes and Wade clamped the extinguisher’s operating lever, piercing the gas cylinder release valve, and opening up the nozzle, allowing the sodium bicarbonate to sprint through the siphon and out into the world, spraying and spewing all over the blue track spikes. Wade waved the extinguisher over the shoes for about 10 seconds, making sure they were not on fire.
Finally, after hugging a competitor, Greene picked up the shoes, shook off some baking soda, and blew a kiss to the crowd, using the shoes as his hands. Carol Lewis interviewed him on the NBC broadcast.
Then he found Wade on the infield. They packed up their things and left to get off the track.
According to Wade, two police officers were waiting for them. “I need to talk to you,” one of the officers said as he stopped Wade from exiting.
“Yeah,” Wade said, “It was pretty fun, huh?”
“No,” the police officer said, “it’s against the law to open a fire extinguisher without a fire.”
Wade thought he was joking. Greene was no longer with him, but his manager was there. The police officers walked him back toward a staging area for the track meet. “Listen,” one of them said, “I’m sorry to tell you, but you can’t open a fire extinguisher, unless you’re a firefighter or a police officer.”
“Are you serious?” Wade said. “But what if I am a police officer?”
The officer shook his head and told Wade he wasn’t a police officer. But, according to Wade, he had been put in touch with the Los Angeles Police Department by his friend and fellow athlete Willie Gault. Wade reached into his bag and pulled out his police officer reserve badge.
“Are you serious?” the officer said. He looked at the badge and realized it was valid.
He let Wade go. Sure, there was no actual fire, but the moment was about to spread through the sports media world like a wild one.
If there was one thing curmudgeons wanted to do after the 4 x 100-meter relay team of Greene, Jon Drummond, Bernard Williams, and Brian Lewis put on one heck of a victory lap after winning gold at the Sydney Olympics, it was to complain. Then, of course, they wanted to complain some more that the athletes were being disrespectful. The runners looked like superheroes and W.W.E. wrestlers, posing for photos with the flags behind them and their shirts off. For some 15-year-old fans of track and field, it was awesome. For some, it was a disgrace.
There was enough outcry for then U.S.A.T.F. CEO Craig Masback to issue an apology. Per The Associated Press, “Greene said the team was caught up in the excitement of winning a gold medal, the first for each runner except for himself [he had already won the 100]. ‘When we finished, we were so overwhelmed, we just lost our minds,’ the 100-meter champion, said. ‘We were not thinking, just acting. We were doing whatever came to us.’ While many were offended, Greene said ‘some enjoyed everything we did.’”
Nearly everyone enjoyed what Greene did May 22, 2004. Twitter did not exist yet, but the event went as viral as anything could in 2004. It was on Sportscenter multiple days in a row—and track and field was not on Sportscenter back then, just as it rarely is now. As Greene wished, people were talking about track in a positive light. There was no talk of performance-enhancing drugs. No talk of Balco. Simply a celebration of someone running fast and having a good time doing it. The Balco talk, of course, did not go away, as it was still a big part of the discussion at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
The race is still shown on ESPN occasionally. One night not too long ago, Yvonne Wade, a two-time Olympian for Japan in the hurdles and the current head coach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas was at a bar with some friends. The race and the celebration flashed on the screen. Wade, who is married to Larry Wade, told her friends that yes that was her husband with the fire extinguisher.
Wade coaches at U.N.L.V., too, and told me his athletes still tag him on social media when they see the race. He was suspended from competing for two years by U.S.A.D.A. from 2004 to 2006 for a doping violation. He retired from the sport in 2007 and has spent the past 14 years doing his best to teach young athletes how to have fun while competing.
That is what he remembers most from that day, that him and his good friend were having a great time on the track. “We just wanted to show that we were the best in the world at what we do, and have fun doing it,” Wade said.
Greene feels the same.
If there is one thing Maurice Greene wants to do nowadays, it is talk track and spread some joy as a physical education teacher at the American Leadership Academy in the Phoenix area. That and help out coaching football and track and field at the high school. And even though the rest of 2004 was not perfect for Greene—he won bronze in Athens behind Justin Gatlin and Portugal’s Francis Obikwelu—he still loves that moment and the sport of track and field.
Speaking on the phone, Greene still has an aura of confidence, and he still a desire to entertain. He laughed as he retold the story of the fire extinguisher and what still might be the most talked-about finish-line celebration in track and field history. Usain Bolt had a heck of a lot of fun and made the sport better, but his most memorable celebration came before the finish line.
Bolt may have taken over Greatest of All Time status when it comes to the 100-meter dash, but Greene—and the G.O.A.T. tattoo on his arm—has an argument for next. Of the names scattered in the all time top 10 times in the 100-meter dash, only Bolt (1), Greene (8) and Richard Thompson (10) have never faced a drug suspension.
Greene is happy that is one way he will be remembered, as one of the fastest 100-meter men of all time. He also likes that celebration. He and Wade never pulled off the James Brown cape celebration, or any other one. Greene told me they were not going to top the fire extinguisher, so why try?
Greene and Wade told me that some of the competitors thought the celebration was overboard. To that, Greene joked they should have run faster. “I didn’t do it to antagonize any of my other competitors,” he added. “I did it because, like I said, the nature of our sport at that time was getting a lot of bad press, and I wanted something positive to be talked about.”
Doping still plagues the sport. Runners and field event athletes will always face allegations—especially when they do well. For Greene, the key to the sport remains having fun with it, and making people want to watch.
“My game was over so fast,” Greene said. “We don’t have a lot of time. We were rolling out there for nine seconds, so you got to try and make it memorable. There was beauty in how fast I would run, but obviously you have to give them a little bit more after.” Which was why Greene liked putting on a show. Whether it was winning gold in Sydney individually or putting on a show during a victory lap after the 4 x 100 relay, Greene told me he wanted people to remember his races forever.
And for Greene and those who watched that day or saw the replay later, it is hard to forget a pair of blue spikes too hot to stay on feet, shoes that had to be extinguished.
It was fast, and it was unforgettable.