Fast, faster, fastest: The evolution of the Olympic sprint

Not many expected Usain Bolt — the greatest sprinter ever — to bring the world record to the amazing 9.58s that he did at the 2009 Worlds in Berlin. Many felt that it came at least 20 years too early. A look at the Olympics sprint event, before it’s over in a jiffy!

Usain Bolt of Jamica beats all opposition to clinch the 100m gold in the Rio Olympics. Bolt is one of a kind, a phenomenon, probably the greatest track and field athlete of all time.   -  Reuters

When Coroebus, a cook, won the first recorded event at the Ancient Olympic Games in 776 B.C., one could imagine the crowd that rushed to embrace him. Athletes ran naked those days at Olympia in Greece and Coroebus ran something like 200 yards on a sanded course to come up with the most glorious moment of his life. There is something fascinating about the sprint, for, the 630 feet race which roughly comes to 192m or about a length of the stadium those days, was the lone event at the Olympiad, held every four years, for some 13 editions. The race was called the ‘stade’ and the word stadium came from that.

Centuries later, when the modern Olympics came into being in 1896 in Athens, Greece, the first race in the Games was the 100m and American Francis Lane won the first heat, becoming the first man to win a race at the Olympics. Another American Thomas Burke — basically a quartermiler — became the fastest man at the first Olympics, winning in 12.0s after clocking 11.8 in the semifinal. He was one of the few men using the crouching start then.

Frank Jarvis, a descendent of the first US President George Washington, beat Burke’s time hollow clocking 11.0s for the gold at the next Olympics in 1900 after timing a world record-equalling 10.8s in the heat.

Digging a ‘launch pad’

Starting blocks, which helped sprinters accelerate quickly by giving them an extra push off the ground at the start of the race, were introduced in the Olympics only in 1948 but even before that athletes used to dig their own ‘launch pad’ into the ground at the starting line.

Jesse Owens, the legend

The legendary American sprinter Jesse Owens, who entered Berlin as the world record holder in the 100, 200m and the long jump, won a historic four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in front of an angry Adolf Hitler. But later, he was forced to run against horses and trains after being banned from amateur competitions by Avery Brudage, the president of the US Olympic Committee and the Amateur Athletics Union then, for refusing to fulfil commercial obligations.

For those looking for landmarks, American Jim Hines broke the 10-second barrier in the 100m in the 1968 Mexico Olympics where he took the gold. It came 72 years after the first Olympics and it took another 42 years for a white man to do a sub-10s run when Frenchman Christophe Lemaitre clocked 9.98s in 2010.

World champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the fastest woman at the last two Olympics in London and Rio and the favourite for Tokyo with her 10.63s run — the second fastest time in history — in June, will be the one to watch this time.   -  Reuters


A phenomenon

Still, not many expected Usain Bolt — the greatest sprinter ever — to bring the world record to the amazing 9.58s that he did at the 2009 Worlds in Berlin. Many felt that it came at least 20 years too early.

But Bolt is one of a kind, a phenomenon, probably the greatest track and field athlete of all time.

Despite his 6’5” frame which many felt was not ideal for the short sprint, Bolt made it look all so easy and he completed a hat-trick of Olympic titles in the 100m and 200m (in 2008, 2012 and 2016). He could beat the others hands down which made the world expect a world record every time he ran in a major event. The sport too thrived when Bolt was in action, he pulled many to athletics and to sprinting.

What was Bolt’s secret of success?

It could be because, being tall, he took four or five fewer strides than his competitors to cover the 100m. Another theory was that his muscles, being slightly longer as he was nearly six inches taller than his rivals, generated more speed and velocity. Whatever it was, when Bolt ran, it was pure magic.

Dirtiest race in history

The greatest 100m rivalry could be the one between the legendary American Carl Lewis, who finished with nine Olympic golds, and Canadian Ben Johnson at the 1988 Seoul Games. But it turned out to be the dirtiest race in history after Johnson, who won the 100m with a world record, failed a dope test and was stripped of his gold.

That makes many look at some of the event’s biggest stars with suspicion. And if one runs through the all-time list in the men’s 100m, seven of the top 10 sprinters — Tyson Gay (US, 9.69m), Yohan Blake (Jam., 9.69), Asafa Powell (Jam, 9.72), Justin Gatlin (US, 9.74), Christian Coleman (US, 9.76), Nesta Carter (Jam, 9.78) and Steve Mullings (Jam., 9.80) — have failed dope tests at some point in their career.

READ | Manpreet Singh on Indian men's hockey team's Tokyo Olympics preparations: We are ready

West African high

Coloured athletes enjoy a huge advantage when it comes to track events and runners of West African descent are the fastest humans on the planet. It’s probably in their genes. And the records and the all-time ranking lists vouch for that.

Incidentally, China’s Su Bingtian became the first Asian-born sprinter to go below the 10-sec barrier in 2015. And India is still waiting for somebody to achieve the same.

Long wait for women

Women came late to track and field at the Olympics, in 1928 in Amsterdam, and even Pierre de Coubertin was not keen about them competing in the Games. American Elizabeth Robinson, then only 16, won the gold in a world record-equalling 12.2s. She almost died in a plane crash three years later and when they found her, her legs were twisted, broken in three places and her left arm was injured badly too. But still she came back and helped the American 4x100m relay team to win the gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Amazing Blankers-Koen

The event had some very colourful characters too, like Francina Blankers-Koen. The Dutchwoman made her Olympic debut in 1936 finishing sixth in the high jump but made a stunning comeback 12 years later at the 1948 Games in London where she won the 100m, the newly-introduced 200m and the 80m hurdles and became the first triple gold winner in history.

This despite the fact that she was not competing in the long jump and high jump, where she was the world record-holder, as athletes could only take part in three individual events.

A fight against all odds

And in 1960, at the Rome Olympics, the amazing Wilma Rudolph had the stage all to herself. The 20th of her father’s 22 children, Rudolph was born prematurely and suffered from pneumonia and polio which left her crippled and she was fitted with metal braces at six.

But with her brother and sisters massaging her crippled left leg, Rudolph was out of her braces three years later and began excelling in basketball.

Her school coach felt that she was too fast and a little later, she found she loved running too. At the Rome Olympics, Rudolph emerged as the fastest woman and also became the first American woman to win three golds in a single Olympics after winning the 100, 200 and 4x100m titles.

Jesse Owens crosses the finish line to win the 100m event in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.   -  AFP


Wilma inspires Griffith Joyner

Wilma Rudolph’s remarkable story inspired many young African-American athletes, including Florence Griffith Joyner who became the first American woman to win four golds in one Olympics in 1988 in Seoul.

Joyner, who still holds the women’s 100m world record, looked like a pop star with her shiny leggings and brightly coloured hair and long painted nails.

However Joyner’s death at 38 from an epileptic seizure in her sleep, 10 years after her Seoul show, triggered allegations of doping though she had never failed a dope test.

READ | Olympics history: Biggest cheating scandals in the Olympics

Confessions of a champ

Twelve years later, Marion Jones emerged as the star and walked away with a golden treble, winning the 100m, 200m and 4x400m relay at the Sydney Olympics. But seven years later, she confessed to doping before Sydney and was stripped of her medals and was also jailed for lying to federal prosecutors.

World champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the fastest woman at the last two Olympics in London and Rio is the favourite for Tokyo too. Her 10.63s run is the second fastest time in history.

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