Owens, Lewis, Bolt and Griffith, fastest and greatest athletes in history | Sunday Observer
Progression of 100 metres world record in athletics:

Owens, Lewis, Bolt and Griffith, fastest and greatest athletes in history

28 June, 2020
Carl Lewis-Jesse Owens-Florence Griffith-Joyner
Carl Lewis-Jesse Owens-Florence Griffith-Joyner

Athletics is complex and wonderfully varied, but it also embodies passion and perfection. It is like life itself, with challenges, obstacles and triumphs. The 100-metre dash is the most popular and prestigious blue riband event at international competitions. The shortest common outdoor running distance, it has been at the Olympic Games since 1896 for men and since 1928 for women. At the IAAF World Championships, the 100m has been contested since 1983. The reigning winner at the Olympic Games or World Championships is capped: “The Fastest Man or Woman in the World.”

There is no greater sense of atmosphere in the world of sports than in the few moments of complete silence in a packed stadium with the sprinters on the blocks of a global championship’s 100m. Within seconds, the audience and millions across the world will know who has won the title of the world’s fastest athlete. The current men’s world record of 9.58 secs is held by Usain Bolt, while the women’s world record of 10.49 secs is credited to Florence Griffith-Joyner.

The 100m (109.361 yards) emerged from the metrication of the 100 yards (91.44 m), a now defunct distance. The USA athletes have won the men’s 100m title at the Olympic Games more times than any other country, 16 out of the 28 times that it has been run. The USA women have also dominated the event winning nine out of 21 times. On an outdoor 400m running track, the 100m is run straight, with the start usually being set on an extension to make it a straight-line race.

Progression of the World Record

The world record for 100m has progressed from a hand timed 10.6 in 1912 to an electronic 9.58 in 2009. In comparison, the first world record holder in the Men’s 100m, Donald Lippincott’s performance of 10.6 would be about a stride short of the 90-metre mark when current world record holder Usain Bolt was breasting the finishing line at 9.58 in 2009. Similarly, Florence Griffith-Joyner’s world record effort of 10.49 in 1988 would have beaten Donald Lippincott. This work presents progression of the world records in both men and women 100m and recalls the world’s fastest humans who contributed towards the evolution from 1912 to 2020.

First Approved 100m World Record of 1912

In athletics, though records at national level were approved from the early 1880s, the first performance to be approved as a world record was the 10.6 of Donald Fithian Lippincott in Heat 16 of the 100m at the Olympic Games, Stockholm 1912. His world record remained for nine years. However, the American could win only a bronze in the 100m and a silver in the 200m at the Olympic Games. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he served as a Lieutenant in the US Navy.

The Fastest Man Alive in the 1920s

Charles William “Charley” Paddock won golds in the 100m and 4x100m at the Olympic Games, Antwerp 1920. He was the renowned sprinter of the 1920s having participated in 1924 and 1928 editions of the Olympic Games as well. He was nicknamed “The Fastest Man Alive.” He improved the world record from 10.6 to 10.4 in 1921. A product of the University of Southern California, he was the first showman of the event, occasionally appearing in silk shorts and stars and stripes shirts. He attracted the kind of fame which enabled him to be friendly with the famous. On the track he favoured the idea of leaping for the tape, which would catch the eye of finish judges. The stocky 1.73m and 75kg Paddock won two golds and two silver medals during his Olympic career. He was the first gold medal winner of the first World Student Games in Paris in 1923. He had a career as a newspaper editor and served the US Army during World War I. He died in a plane crash while serving as a top aide to a US Marine Corps 2-star in World War II at 42 years.

Sprint Double of Canadian Percy Williams

Percy Alfred Williams, a slender, 1.78m and 58kg athlete from Canada won the 100m and 200m at the Amsterdam 1928 Olympic Games. He was the first sprinter not from the USA to win two golds at one edition of the Olympics. At the trials for the inaugural Empire Games in 1930, he became the first to run at 10.3. He won the 100m at the Empire Games in Hamilton but injured himself in doing so and missed the next season as well as the 1932 Olympic Games.

Jesse Owens and Greatest 45 Minutes Ever

James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens, also known as “The Buckeye Bullet,” emerged in 1933, setting a US schoolboy record in the 100m. Born in Alabama, he achieved athletic immortality with a 9.4 in the 100m - the first of six World Records within 45 minutes on May 25, 1935 at Ann Arbor, Michigan. It is a feat that has never been equalled and has been styled as “The Greatest 45 Minutes Ever in Sport.” One of these world records, 8.13m in the long jump lasted 25 years.

In 1936, Owens became the first sprinter to win the NCAA, AAU, Olympic Trials and Olympic Games. In taking the collegiate title, he became the first to run a ratified 10.2. With the huge focus on the Olympic Games, and the drama of the Games being hosted by fascist Germany, the victories in Berlin rang around the world. His four gold medals at the age of 22 included – 100m in 10.3, 200m in 20.7, Long Jump with a leap of 8.06 and 4x100m in 39.8. A product of Ohio State University, he was recognized as “The Greatest and Most Famous Athlete in Track and Field History.”

World Record Improvement from 1956 to 1983

Willie Williams was an American sprinter credited with the first ratified 10.1 in Berlin in 1956. It was one-tenth of a second faster than the previous record held jointly by eight men. There was a changing of the guard in 1960, with the USA deprived of both the sprint double for the first time since 1928 at the Olympic Games. It was West Germany’s Armin Hary who won plaudits as “The Fastest Man in the World.” He was the first man to run the 100m in 10.0 secs.

James Ray “Jim” Hines of the USA who had clocked the first manually timed 9.9 on June 20, won the Olympic title on October 14, 1968 at Mexico City with the first electronically timed mark under 10 secs, 9.95 in the helpful high altitude and on a synthetic track. He held the world record for 15 long years. Calvin Smith of the USA broke the world record of Jim Hines with a 9.93 at high altitude of Colorado Springs in 1983. He was twice world champion in the 200m and won a gold in the 4x100m in Los Angeles 1984 and a bronze in the 100m in Seoul 1988 at the Olympic Games.

Carl Lewis Crowned Sportsman of the Century

Frederick Carlton “Carl” Lewis of the USA was named, “Sportsman of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee in 1999 and Sports Illustrated named him “Olympian of the Century.” The fact remains that Lewis is rightly regarded as the greatest long jumper of all-time, with two Olympic Gold medals and two world titles between 1983 and 1991. He has achieved more than any other 100m sprinter during his career from 1979 to 1996. He is one of the four Olympic athletes to have won nine Olympic gold medals and is widely recognized as one of the greatest athletes of all time.

His Olympic gold medals include – 100m, 200m, 4x100m and Long Jump at Los Angeles 1984, 100m and Long Jump at Seoul 1988, 4x100m and Long Jump at Barcelona 1992 and Long Jump at Atlanta 1996. Besides, he has an Olympic silver in the 200m at Seoul 1988. The changing economies of the sport meant that Lewis could earn a very good living in athletics for more than a decade. A slothful starter, Lewis was a magnificent finisher, best evidenced by his world record run of 9.86 in the 1991 World Championships. He engaged in various charity efforts and created the Carl Lewis Foundation in 2001 to promote education, wellness and fitness.

Leroy Burrell and Donovan Bailey

Leroy Russel Burrell, 183cm and 82kg from Houston, Texas accounted for two world records with 9.90 in June 1991 and 9.85 in July 1994. On both occasions, he surpassed the world records held by Carl Lewis. At the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992, he won a gold in the 4x100m and two World Championship golds in 1991 and 1993 in the same event.

Donovan Bailey of Canada a year after taking the world title ran a timely world record of 9.84 to secure the Olympic crown at Atlanta 1996. He also won another Olympic gold in the 4x100 at Atlanta besides his 100m gold in 1995 and 4x100m two golds in 1995 and 1997 at the World Championships.

Maurice Green and Asafa Powell

The American who broke Bailey’s record was the short but powerful Maurice Green, 1.75m and 80kg. He timed 9.79 in 1999. He won golds in the 100m and 4x100m at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and came back to secure a silver in 4x100m and a bronze in the 100m at Athens 2004 Olympic Games. Besides, he was world champion in the 100m in 1997, 100m, 200m and 4x100m in 1999 and 100m in 2001. Greeen’s reign as the world record holder lasted almost six years.

Asafa Powell from Jamaica clocked 9.77 in 2005 to establish a new world record and then improved to 9.74 in 2007. He won two golds in 4x100m at Beijing 2008 and Rio 2016 Olympic Games. He has broken the ten-second barrier more times than anyone else – 97 times. Powell competed in the 100m at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games Finals.

Usain Bolt – The World’s Fastest Man

The holder of the world records at the 100m, 200m and 4x100m and an 11-time world champion, Usain St. Leo Bolt, OJ, CD is widely considered to be the greatest sprinter of all time. Usain enhanced his already legendary Olympic status with an unprecedented third consecutive triple at Rio 2016, a feat that may well never be repeated. The fabulous Jamaican had first emerged in 2002 at the age of 15 when he became World Junior champion in the 200m.

In 2003, he became the first athlete to win the World Youth title after being crowned the Junior Champion. In 2004, he set a Junior World 200m record of 19.93, but then stagnated because of injuries and an innate joie de vivre, though he did win silver in the 200m in the 2007 World Championships. He tried the 100m that year and clocked 10.03 in his first race. In 2008, he improved to 9.76 in Jamaica before setting a world record 9.72 on May 31, 2008 in New York. At the Olympic Games, Beijing 2008, he improved his world record clocking 9.69 on August 16, 2008. He then broke Michael Johnson’s 200m world record with 19.30 before anchoring Jamaica to a world relay record of 37.10.

In the history, just three athletes – Jesse Owens, Bobby Morrow and Carl Lewis – had won the Olympic sprint treble of the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay previously but none had come away with three world records in the process. In 2009, Usain Bolt was even better, producing 9.58 and 19.19 and establishing world records at the World Championships in Berlin. Bolt’s enjoyment in athletics continued at London 2012 and Rio 2016 where he won his second and third Olympic triple giving a new passion to the title of “World’s Fastest Man,” before bidding farewell to the Olympic stage on his 30th birthday – August 31, the day of the Closing Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Flo-Jo Departs as the World’s Fastest Woman

The world’s fastest human is always going to be a man. Yet, the honour of becoming the world’s fastest woman has been equally contested. The first performance to be approved as a world record was the 11.7 on August 26, 1934 of Stanislawa Walasiewicz of Poland, the winner of the Olympic Games, Los Angeles 1932. The world record continued to tumble and Helen Stephens, an imposing athlete of the USA won the Berlin 1936 Olympic gold. Fanny Blankers-Koen, popularly known as “The Flying Dutchwoman” won the Olympic Games, London 1948 and became the undoubted star of the era. The winner of the Olympic Games, Tokyo 1964 was Wyomia Tyus who in 1968 set a new world record of 11.08.

For the women 11 secs for the 100m was a major barrier. Renate Stecher set an electronically timed world record of 11.07 in winning the Olympic Games, Munich 1972. Marlies Oelsner improved to a sensational 10.88 at the GDR Championships. Evelyn Ashford improved the world record to 10.76. Then, Florence Griffith-Joyner improved to an implausible 10.49 at the Olympic Trials in July 1988. “Flo-Jo” won three golds and a silver at the Olympic Games, Seoul 1988 and died in her sleep at the age 38 in 1998. Yet, her world record and title as the World’s Fastest Woman survives!

(The author possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc; his research interests encompasses Olympic Education, IOC and Sports; recipient of National and Presidential Accolades for Academic and Sports pursuits; his byline appears regularly since 1988)