Owens, Lewis, Bolt: What a historyComment on this story
Over 116 years the Olympic 100 metres final has produced drama, pain, controversy, disillusionment, incredulity and unbridled joy – all crammed into a race lasting little longer than it takes to say “Baron Pierre de Coubertin.”
Sports fans can be quite accurately aged by the first Olympic 100m final they remember and everyone has their favourite winner.
A pre-war generation praised Jesse Owens to immortal levels while later it was the smooth style of Bobby Joe Morrow and Carl Lewis that had athletics aficionados drooling.
Ben Johnson took the event to new, explosive heights, then dragged it into the gutter, before Usain Bolt gloriously lifted it back to the pinnacle of sport with his unprecedented combination of raw speed and sheer joy.
Fittingly the first event of the revived 1896 Olympics in Athens was a heat of the 100 metres and Thomas Burke’s 12-second triumph in the final, run in taped-off lanes, set the tone for more than a century of American dominance.
US athletes won 13 of the first 16 gold medals and have taken 16 of the 25 races they competed in.
In 1904 Frank Jarvis won in 11 seconds, despite the race being run on grass, while in 1904 in St Louis Archie Hahn led home a six-man American clean sweep, having also won the 200m and the 60m.
South African Reginald Walker ended the American streak when he triumphed in 1908 but Ralph Craig led a US 1-2-3 in 1912, also doubling up with the 200m, while compatriot Charlie Paddock won in 1920.
Englishman Harold Abrahams’ victory in 1924 was brought to life for a modern audience via the film Chariots of Fire while Canadian Percy Williams took the honours in Amsterdam four years later.
Eddie Tolan edged fellow American Ralph Metcalfe in 1932 after the first “TV replay” as he was awarded the race two hours after the finish following review of a cine film.
Owens’ victory in 1936 has become the stuff of legend as the success of a black sprinter in front of Adolf Hitler ridiculed Nazi beliefs in an “Aryan super race.”
Adding the 200m, long jump and 4x100m golds ensured Owens’ place in the pantheon of Olympic greats and left future champions paling by comparison until Lewis matched his achievement 48 years later.
A less-widely known Nazi connection from that 1936 final, as David Wallechinksy points out in his superlative Complete book of the Olympics was that Dutchman Martinus Osendarp, who took bronze, later joined the SS and was jailed for seven years following the Second World War.
When the Games restarted in 1948 Harrison Dillard – helped by the first use of starting blocks – Lindy Remigino (1952) and Bobby Morrow (1956), maintained the US domination before Armin Hary, the first man to be timed at 10 seconds dead before the Games, won it for Germany in 1960.
Bob Hayes equalled that time in winning the 1964 title, setting himself up for a lucrative career in American football with the Dallas Cowboys, with whom he won a Superbowl.
The 10-second barrier was finally broken by Jim Hines in California in 1968 in the build-up to the Mexico City Games.
The American took full advantage of the first electronic timing when he lowered that mark to 9.95 – at altitude – in winning the final, before he too went into the NFL.
Valery Borzov took the Soviet Union’s only gold in the event in 1972 – helped considerably by two of his main American rivals missing their second round heat after turning up late.
Hasely Crawford won for Trinidad in 1976 as the United States failed to medal for only the second time, and they were absent altogether from the boycotted 1980 Games in Moscow, when Allan Wells won for Britain from lane eight – the last white man to triumph.
Lewis returned the United States to their accustomed position when his beautifully flowing style swept him to glory in Los Angeles in 1984 but it was his “victory” four years later that was arguably the most memorable moment in the history of the entire Olympic movement.
Lewis’s rivalry with Johnson built to a frenzy by the time they lined up for the final in Seoul but the eagerly-awaited race was effectively over after five metres as the Canadian leapt from his blocks as if fired from a cannon.
Johnson finished miles clear in a world record time of 9.79, with Lewis leading home the shellshocked field in 9.92.
It was a devastating display by Johnson but three days later came the stunning news that he had tested positive for a banned steroid and Lewis was awarded the gold.
Johnson was not alone, however, as over the years it emerged that no less than six of the eight 1988 finalists were tainted by association with performance-enhancing drugs that became a stain on the sport and undermined public confidence in what they were seeing.
Linford Christie won for Britain in 1992 while Donovan Bailey restored Canada’s reputation with a world record 9.84 victory in Atlanta in 1996.
American Maurice Greene took the 2000 title but Justin Gatlin, winner in 2004, was another doper, who, having served his ban, will be back in action in London later this week representing the US
So it fell to Bolt to restore sprinting to its proper place and give the world an athletics hero they could believe in – and he delivered in spades.
His world record 9.69 seconds winning time in Beijing would have been enough on its own to send fans into a frenzy but it was the style in which it was achieved, with the Jamaican beating his chest, high-stepping, almost dancing through the last 10 metres, that blasted him into uncharted territory.
It was joy, not some seedy chemical that coursed through his veins and elevated him and the 100 metres back to the peak of world sport.
That he added the 200m and 4x100m golds, also in world record times, was icing on an already heavenly cake and with him due to defend all three titles in London, the world is ready for another large helping.
l The heats for the 100m start tomorrow, with the final on Sunday evening.