"An athlete has a heavy responsibility placed on him, whether or not he wants it." -- Edwin Moses

Decades from now, it surely will be only a tiny smudge on an otherwise stunning portrait. The fleshed-out look at Edwin Moses will emphasize his being a champion of athletes' rights, twice an Olympic champion, an exceptional scholar and so on, right down to what will drag him into court in a couple of weeks.

Very likely, the worst race Moses ever ran over 10 hurdles and 400 meters took less time than that early-morning incident with an undercover policewoman 17 days ago in a naughty section of Los Angeles.

She was part of a "trick task force" that made 82 arrests for "soliciting an act of prostitution" during a three-day sweep; she must have snapped to half-dress alert when the 1985 Mercedes bearing OLYMPYN plates came to a halt.

The way Moses tells it, the woman mentioned money and a good time, he said he had $100 and drove off in the direction opposite the one she had suggested. Officer Gonzalez contends otherwise; the trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 8.

The matter has gotten extensive and international attention for the simple reason that Moses, after nine years of struggling, had achieved exactly that for his running and his thinking.

Winner of a staggering 109 straight races, it usually takes Moses 47-plus seconds to negotiate what amounts to about 151 steps, from the start of the 400-meter hurdles to the end. It couldn't have taken much more than that to get himself into trouble, either as a harmless flirt or guilty of a sin that fetches a fine of $150 to $300 for first offenders.

These last few weeks have been fairly rough for Olympians, what with a blood-doping scandal involving U.S. cyclists, assorted charges of steroid abuse and Moses proving mortal after all.

Americans expect more of Olympians than other athletes, as though their largely anonymous striving makes them more courageous and pure.

Our most gifted female runner, Mary Decker Slaney, has proved as driven and mean-spirited as any snaggletoothed linebacker or brushback pitcher. She's still a joy to watch.

If America had been paying attention, it long ago would have realized how close to unique Moses is among world-class athletes.

If Dan Marino keeps throwing 16 more touchdown passes than anyone else in the NFL for the next nine years, he will be about where Moses is in relation to every other 400-meter hurdler in the world.

The best nontechnical illustration of his extraordinary ability to cover great gobs of ground in a hurry came during one of those Superstars events in Florida.

Moses looked at the beginning of the obstacle course, at the military-like 12-foot barrier with a rope dangling from the top and said to himself: "I don't need the rope." This was akin to the time darkness suddenly struck Capital Centre during a playoff and George Gervin casually told Bullets Coach Dick Motta: "Who needs lights?"

Most of the alleged Superstars had trouble crawling over the barrier with the rope; Moses hopped halfway up, planted his foot, boosted his body like some 6-foot-2 rocket, grabbed the top with both hands and pulled himself over.

Youthful Willie Wilson, arguably the fastest player in baseball but a loser to Moses in the 100-yard dash, tried to ape that no-rope feat. Clawing at the barrier nearly a foot from the top, Wilson plopped back into his own footsteps.

More important than anything he did on the track, Moses has been a force in helping amateur athletes get the sort of money they deserve -- and with as much dignity as possible.

As the most experienced Olympian, his voice has been the loudest; his ideas have been sought by U.S. amateur officials and the International Olympic Committee.

"No athlete in any sport is so respected by his peers as Moses is in track and field," Frank Deford wrote when Sports Illustrated anointed him and Mary Lou Retton sportsmen of 1984.

On the cover, Retton was looking up at Moses.

As the person designated to recite the athletes' oath at the opening ceremonies of the Los Angeles Games, Moses showed himself wonderfully human by forgetting some of the words. Expected later to bestride the 400-meter field, he did. As he had in Montreal, and very likely would have in Moscow had U.S. athletes been allowed to compete.

"I really want to make a difference before I leave this sport," he said, a few years ago, "put the record out of reach, hopefully, where people won't even think in terms of breaking it . . . . Just one shot. It only takes one time, you know?"

Those who care most about Moses will accept whatever verdict comes in court as a relatively small misstep during a 29-year life of very few missteps. The public, whose affections Moses sought for so many years, might be less tolerant.

In ways far from the track, it also takes only one time. You know? Bright guy, Moses. But not always wise.