13 December, 2020
Usain Bolt
Usain Bolt

Athletics or Track and Field has been featured at every Summer Olympic Games since the first Modern Olympic Games of Athens 1896. Countless athletes from around the globe have left their mark on the Olympic antiquity. Some performances were a single brilliant moment that personified the Olympic motto of “Swifter, Higher, Stronger.” Others displayed astounding longevity that resulted in epic medal hauls spanning multiple Olympiads.

I have gathered those choice athletes who have risen well above the high standards of Olympic champions. Their ‘greatness’ as well as unique feats and distinct contributions by way of innovation have been recognized. In the process, I have left off some I have encountered on the track and some, I deeply admire. Nevertheless, like with all ‘Top Lists,’ I wanted this one to tell a story. Enjoy the resulting pageant of sporting greatness!

Having extensively researched spectacular deeds, giant feats and high drama of Olympians who won 974 gold medals up to Rio 2016, I have identified arguably the 28 greatest Olympic athletes of all-time. Usain Bolt, Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens earned podium positions. As an Athlete and a Sri Lankan, I thought it fit to deviate from the criteria and recognize two Silver Medalists - Merlene Ottey and Susanthika Jayasinghe.

1. Usain Bolt, Jamaica

Eight Golds. The Greatest Sprinter. Usain St. Leo Bolt (born August 21, 1986) swept the sprint double of 100m and 200m at three successive Summer Olympic Games - Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016. The “Lightning Bolt” struck spectacularly securing treble gold medals at successive Olympic Games in 2012 and 2016, winning gold medals in 4x100m relays as well. He is the reigning Olympic Champion in 100m and 200m. His world records in 100m at 9.58 (August 16, 2009), 200m at 19.19 (August 20, 2009) and 4x100m relay at 36.84 (August 11, 2012) are still unbeaten.

2. Carl Lewis, USA

Nine Golds and One Silver. Male Athlete of the 20th Century. Frederick Carlton “Carl” Lewis (born July 1, 1961) was a top clutch athlete. A phenomenal all-rounder who took the Olympics by storm. At Los Angeles 1984, he won four golds - 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m relay and emulated Jesse Owens. In Seoul 1988, he captured two golds in 100m and long jump and a silver in 200m. Carl followed up with two golds in long jump and a gold in 4x100m relay. He holds the record for the longest streak in long jump - Los Angeles 1984, Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996.

3. Jesse Owens, USA

Four Golds. The Legend of Athletics. The feat of Jesse Owens (1913-1980) in winning four golds at Berlin 1936 in the most heated environment imaginable, with Adolf Hitler himself in the pavilion, is one of the most remarkable achievements in the Olympic history. In the moment, he overcame the racism of his own country and the rising hatred in another. He won 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m relay to be the ‘Most Dynamic Performer.’ During his lifetime, he was recognized as “the greatest athlete in track and field history.” In 1935, he set three world records and tied another - a feat that has been called “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport.”

4. Paavo Nurmi, Finland

Nine Golds and Three Silvers. Most Decorated Male Olympian Athlete. Paavo Johannes Nurmi (1897-1973) dominated distance running winning 1500m, 3000m steeplechase, 5000m, 10,000m and cross-country. His record for the Olympic gold medals of nine lasted 80 years until broken by Michael Phelps in 2008. His speed and elusive personality spawned the nickname, “Flying Finn.” He set 22 world records. At his peak, he was undefeated in 121 races. At Antwerp 1920, he won three golds and a silver. In Paris 1924, he won five golds. At Amsterdam1928, he captured a gold and two silvers. His achievements, training methods and running style influenced future generations. He has been credited for introducing the “even pace” strategy and analytic approach to running. He carried the Olympic Flame at Helsinki 1952 Olympics.

5. Allyson Felix, USA

Six Golds and Three Silvers. Most Decorated Female Olympian Athlete. Only Female Athlete with Six Golds. Allyson Michelle Felix (born November 18, 1985) secured a gold in 400m at London 2012. She won three golds at 4x400m (2008, 2012 and 2016), and two more at 4x100m (2012 and 2016). Besides, she has three silvers (200m - 2004 and 2008, 400m - 2016). Felix describes her ability as a gift from God, “For me, my faith is the reason I run. I definitely feel I have this amazing gift that God has blessed me with, and it’s all about using it to the best of my ability.”

6. Michael Johnson, USA

Four Golds. The Man with Golden Shoes. With a conspicuously upright running style that made him one of track’s most identifiable stars, Michael Duane Johnson (born 1967) electrified the track. His peak came at Atlanta 1996, where he became the first man to win both 200m and 400m. The former came in a world-record time while the latter came in an Olympic record of 43.49 that still stands. He is also the only man to successfully defend his Olympic title in 400m, having done so at Sydney 2000. He anchored to establish current 4x400m world record of 2:54.29 (August 22, 1993).

7. Fanny Blankers-Koen, Netherlands

Four Golds. Female Athlete of the 20th Century. Francina “Fanny” Blankers-Koen (1918-2004) was dubbed “Flying Housewife” when she competed at 30 as a mother of two children. At London 1948, she won 80m hurdles, 100m, 200m, and 4x100m relay. She set 12 world records in long jump, high jump, sprint and hurdling, the last at 33. She was part of Berlin 1936 and Helsinki 1952 as well. Her Olympic victories eliminated the belief that age and motherhood were barriers to success in women’s sport.

8. Emil Zatopek, Czechoslovakia

Four Golds. Emil Zatopek (1922-2000) is best known for winning three golds at Helsinki 1952 - 10,000m, 5000m, and marathon. His last minute decision to compete in his first marathon truly changed his entire life. He clinched a gold in Melbourne 1956 to win back-to-back 10,000m. The Guardian reported that he looked like “a man who had taken a brisk country walk.” He was nicknamed, “Czech Locomotive.” He was also famous for his brutally tough training methods. He was the originator of interval and hypoventilation training.

9. Raymond Ewry, USA

Eight Golds. Raymond Clarence Ewry (1873-1937) contracted polio and used a wheelchair in his childhood. At Paris 1900, he won three golds in standing jumps – high, long and triple. At St. Louis 1904, he defended all three titles. At London 1908, he won standing long and high jumps. His record of eight Olympic golds in individual events lasted 100 years until Michael Phelps surpassed it in 2008. His record of three successive Olympic golds in two events lasted 108 years, until Michael Phelps surpassed it in 2016. His record of winning three golds in one event, lasted 60 years until Al Oerter broke it in 1968. As of 2020, he holds the record for the Olympic medals with a 100% record - 8 individual golds.

10. Florence Griffith-Joyner, USA

Three Golds and Two Silvers. Fastest Female of all time. In 1988, Florence Delorez Griffith-Joyner (1959-1998), established world records in 100m at 10.49 (July 16, 1988) and in 200m at 21.34 (September 29, 1988). Both these world records stand as of 2020, after 32 years. Oozing star quality, from her ruby red lipstick down to the tips of her cartoonish long fingernails, “Flo-Jo” was everything a track sensation should be - colourful, charming and dominant. She missed the 1980 Olympics due to the U.S. boycott. She made her Olympic debut in 1984 winning a silver in 200m. At the 1992 Olympics, she won a silver in 4x400m relay.

11. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, USA

Three Golds, One Silver and Two Bronzes. The Greatest All-Round Woman Athlete. Jacqueline Joyner-Kersee (born 1962) made her name at the Olympiads of 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996. After securing a silver in 1984 heptathlon, she won heptathlon golds in 1988 and 1992 and added a gold (1988) and two bronzes (1992 and 1996) in long jump. She holds the heptathlon world record of 7291 (September 24, 1988). As a women’s sporting icon, her legacy was even greater. She would redefine the woman athlete in her graceful, powerful and dignified likeness. She is an active philanthropist in children’s education, racial equality and women’s rights.

12. Edwin Moses, USA

Two Golds. Edwin Corley Moses (born 1955) dominated 400m hurdles for over nine years with 122 consecutive victories. He won golds at 1976 and 1984. Moses secured a bronze at 1988. Moses was an innovative reformer in the areas of Olympic eligibility and drug testing.

13. Lasse Viren, Finland

Four Golds. Lasse Artturi Viren (born 1949) was famous for his brutal workouts, which is what you might expect from an athlete who swept 5000m and 10,000m at consecutive Olympics. In Munich 1972, Viren was bumped in the 12th lap of 10,000m and he fell to the ground. He got back and won the gold. Seven days later, he won 5000m. At 1976 Olympics, Viren recaptured the image of the “Flying Finns” promoted in the 1920s winning both 5000m and 10000m.

14. Bob Beamon, USA

One Gold. The track world has a word for performances so remarkable they defy reason, “Beamonesque.” In Mexico City 1968, Robert “Bob” Beamon (born 1946) broke the world long jump record by an astonishing 55 cm. His 8.90m (29 2 ½) was a quantum leap in the history of Olympics, a space-age jump into the future. Beamon realized he had done something extraordinary and he almost collapsed in shock. As of 2020, the jump is still the Olympic record. His one jump so shook the earth that you could argue he belongs even higher.

15. Dick Fosbury, USA

One Gold. Richard Douglas “Dick” Fosbury (born 1947) revolutionized the high jump at Mexico City 1968, setting a new Olympic record with an innovative clearance method. He had actually been working on the technique, but its golden potential was realized only in 1968 and today it is the predominant clearance method known as the “Fosbury Flop.” His method was to sprint diagonally towards the bar, then curve and leap backwards over the bar, which gave him a much lower center of mass in flight than traditional techniques.

16. Evelyn Ashford, USA

Four Golds and One Silver. Second Most Decorated Female. Evelyn Ashford (born 1957), the iron woman of American sprinting, competed in four Olympics - 1976, 1984, 1988 and 1992. She contributed to three victories in 4x100m - 1984, 1988 and 1992 and added a gold in 100m in 1984 and a silver in 1988.

17. Sanya Richards-Ross, USA

Four Golds and One Bronze. Third Most Decorated Female. Sanya Richards-Ross (born 1985) is the fastest American woman in history at 400m. She won a gold in 400m at London 2012 after a bronze at 2008. She also won golds in 4x400m at 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

18. Mo Farah, Great Britain

Four Golds. Mohamed Muktar Jama “Mo” Farah (born 1983), is 2012 and 2016 gold medalist in both 5000m and 10,000m.

He is the second after Lasse Viren, to win the double at successive Olympics. Farah runs distance races tactically, a style, which is aided by his quick sprint finish.

19. Robert Korzeniowski, Poland

Four Golds. Robert Marek Korzeniowski (born 1968) is a three-peat winner of 50 km walk at 1996, 2000 and 2004. In addition, he became the first athlete to claim both the long distance and the short distance Olympic crowns, when he won 20 km title at 2000.

20. Betty Cuthbert, Australia

Four Golds. Elizabeth Alyse “Betty” Cuthbert (1938-2017) was the first Australian Olympian to win three golds. She set 14 world records during her career in 60m, 100y, 200m, 220y, 440y, 4x100m, 4x110y, 4x200m and 4x220y. At 18, she won 100m, 200m and 4x100m at Melbourne 1956 and became the Australian “Golden Girl.”

At Rome 1960, she suffered an injury but won a gold in 400m in Tokyo 1964. She is the only Olympian, male or female, to have won all sprint events: 100, 200 and 400.

21. Al Oerter, USA

Four Golds. The Incredible Thrower. Alfred Oerter Jr. (1936-2007) was the quintessence of Olympic clutch, winning four consecutive discus throw golds - Melbourne 1956, Rome 1960, Tokyo 1964 and Mexico City 1968. Oerter won his first in 1956 at 20 and his last in 1968 at 32. His most dramatic performance came at 1964, where he overcame severe rib and neck injuries to take his third of four Olympic titles. “Let’s put it this way,” he had told once. “You’ve got to love it.”

22. Abebe Bikila, Ethiopia

Two Golds. Shambel Abebe Bikila (1932-1973) won back-to-back Olympic marathons with world records at Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964. He is the first African Olympic gold medalist, winning his first gold running barefoot.

23. Vilho Ritola, Finland

Five Golds and Three Silvers. The triumph of Vilho Eino Ritola (1896-1982) is historical as his six medals in Paris 1924 is still the highest won in one Olympics in athletics. His four golds put him second behind Paavo Nurmi in golds won in one Olympics. In 1924, he won golds in 10,000m, 3000m steeplechase, 3000m team and team cross-country. His silvers came from 5000m and individual cross-country. At 1928, he won a gold in 5000m and a silver in 10,000m.

24. Wilma Rudolph, USA

Three Golds and One Bronze. At Rome 1960, Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994) became the first American female to win three golds - 100m, 200m and 4x100m. At 1956, she won a bronze in 4x100m at 16. She contracted polio and scarlet fever as an infant and relied on a left leg brace until nine and corrective footwear until 12. As an Olympic champion, she became a role model for black and female athletes. She would say, “I believe in me more than anything in this world.”

25. Harrison Dillard, USA

Four Golds. Harrison Dillard (1923-2019) was the only Olympian to win golds in both 100m and 110m hurdles, making him the “World’s Fastest Man” in 1948 and the “World’s Fastest Hurdler” in 1952. He remained unbeaten in 82 consecutive finals, a record until broken by Ed Moses. The first use of a photo finish at an Olympics was his 100m in 1948. He also won golds in 4x100m in 1948 and 1952.

26. Alvin Kraenzlein, USA

Four Golds. Alvin Kraenzlein (1876-1928), is known as “Father of Modern Hurdling Technique.” At Paris 1900, he became the first Olympian to win four individual gold medals in athletics - 60m, 110m hurdles, 200m and long jump. His record remains intact after 124 years.

27. Parry O’Brien, USA

Two Golds. Patrick “Parry” O’Brien (1932-2007) became the first shot putter to incorporate a full 180-degree turn into his launch sequence. By harnessing the added rotational force, he innovated “O’Brien Glide,” changing perceptions and won successive golds in 1952 and 1956 and a silver in 1960.

28. Bob Mathias, USA

Two Golds. Youngest Male Olympic Champion. At London 1948, Robert Bruce Mathias (1930-2006) won decathlon at 17 years and 6 months. At Helsinki 1952, he won with a new world record of 7,887 and became the first to win back-to-back decathlon golds.

29. Merlene Ottey, Slovenia

Three Silver. Six Bronze. Most Olympic Games as an Athlete. Merlene Joyce Ottey (born May 10, 1960) switched nationality from Jamaica to Slovenia in 2002. Winning golds at Olympics eluded her, yet her longevity led to her being called the “Queen of the Track.” Her proclivity for earning bronzes got her the title “Bronze Queen.” She holds records for the most Olympic medals of nine (tied with Allyson Felix) and most Olympic Games of seven - 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004. Her elite career spanned 33 years from 19 to 52.

30. Susanthika Jayasinghe, Sri Lanka

One Silver. Only Living Sri Lankan Olympic Medalist. Susanthika Jayasinghe (born December 17, 1975) specialized in the sprint double. She won a silver in 200m at 2000 Olympics to become the first Asian female to win an Olympic medal in a sprint event. She is nicknamed, “Asian Black Mare.”

(The author spotlights iconic Olympic athletes. He is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018. He possesses double MSc, MPhil and PhD)