100m evolution: How athletes upped the pace

The forerunner to the 100 metres was the 100 yards (91.44m), the imperial measurement. But it was not until 1912 that the then International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) was formed and the first world record in 100m by Donald Lippincott of the US (10-3/5s) in the preliminaries at the Stockholm Olympic Games approved.


The start and the finish of the 100m dash at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Bob Hayes (702) of the United States won the gold medal covering the distance in 10 seconds to tie the world record and set a new Olympic record for the event. Hayes probably heralded the advent of the muscular, black athlete in international sprinting.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Wyomia Tyus of the USA winning the first heat of the women's 100m event in 11.2 secs with Valerie Peat of Britain second (left). Tyus later took the gold in an electronically recorded world record time, a first for the women's event in the Olympics.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The short dash had always held great fascination for athletes and spectators alike. The forerunner to the 100 metres was the 100 yards (91.44m), the imperial measurement. The unofficial records in 100m are available in the IAAF record books from 1867.

But it was not until 1912 that the then International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) was formed and the first world record in 100m by Donald Lippincott of the US (10-3/5s) in the preliminaries at the Stockholm Olympic Games approved.

Lippincott, given an equivalent of 10.6s in later publications could manage only 10.9s in the final won by Ralph Craig of the US in 10.8s.

The first athlete to win a race in the Modern Olympic Games in 1896 was Francis Lane of Princeton University, USA. Watched by 40,000 spectators inside the stadium and thousands atop the hills outside, he won the first heat in the 100m in 12.2s

The first Olympic champion in the 100m was Thomas Burke of the US in 12.0s. Burke, essentially a 400m runner won his pet event also.

Unlike modern times, there were only four to five to six lanes in the stadium those days. That meant athletes had to run more qualifying races, sometimes on the same day. In Paris in 1900 all three rounds of the 100m were run on the same day with Frank Jarvis of the US winning in 11.0s.

Runners were expected to bring their own mason’s knife or similar equipment to dig out a foothold, mostly on cinder tracks, at the start which was the alternative for today’s starting block. The start saw various styles, crouch rarely used those days.

Certain timings during those days were listed with an ‘e’, meaning “estimated”. That either meant there were no official timings available for certain places or were found to be improbable and later corrected by experts using photographs where available.

There was uncertainty about the start as well as the finish. The “mutual consent” start, pistol start and handkerchief start were all part of the practice during the 1800s.

Till 1924 in Paris Lippincott’s 10.6 was not bettered. Harold Abrahams of Britain, of the ‘Chariots of Fire’ fame equalled that record in Paris. Abrahams ran the same time in the second round and the semis.

By then the world record had been raised to 10-2/5 by Charles Paddock of the US in April 1921.

In what was one of the closest races ever in the 100m history of the Olympic Games, the 1932 Los Angeles Games produced a dead-heat. Two Americans Eddie Tolan and Ralph Metcalfe finished together. Tolan’s torso was a fraction ahead at the finish.

Despite the use of the Kirby camera (devised by Gustavus T. Kirby) officials took more than two hours to decide who the winner was. Under the current rules Metcalfe would have been the winner since he reached the line first. Rules then said the athlete had to cross the line.

Both Tolan, nicknamed ‘Midnight Express’ and Metcalfe were given the same time of 10.3, equal to the world record. Both were also given the electronic time of 10.38s. Tolan had bettered the previous Olympic record with 10.4 in the second round.

The IAAF did not accept Metcalfe’s timing as a world record later. Even now in the Olympic results it is shown as both had a world record of 10.3s.

Harrison Dillard of the US, one of the finest sprint hurdlers of his time, could not make it to the 1948 Olympics in London in his pet event as he fell during the Olympic trials. He did the next best thing, squeezed himself into the US team as the third entry.

As it turned out, Dillard clocked 10.3s in London to equal the Olympic record. By then the world record had been improved to 10.2 by Barney Ewell of the US in Evanston, Illinois. Ewell came second in London.

Historians have noted that there was no mention of wind-readings in the application for world record in Ewell’s case, but all the same it was approved. Many of the old records do not show wind-readings. A reading of 2m/s is allowed; above that a record is not ratified.

A number of records in subsequent years also do not show wind-readings, forcing us to accept them with a certain amount of doubt. In fact all timings before the establishment of the IAAF (and some after it also) have to be taken with a measure of uncertainty because of various factors.

Armin Hary of FRG (Germany) had the best ‘start’ in the 1960s. He had the habit of jumping the gun often, sometime leaving the starters confused. There was no ‘false-start’ system in place during those days.

Currently the starter can not only hear a beep in his earphones if a false start occurs, technical officials can analyse the start repeatedly on their monitors to see who false started. The present rule brings disqualification for the first false start for any runner dispensing with the earlier rule of two false starts.

Hary ran a world record of 10.0 flat at the Weltklasse in Zurich on 21 June, 1960 to be one of the favourites for the Olympic title in Rome. The other was Ray Norton of the US who, in the previous year, had set a world record of 10.1 in San Jose, USA.

In Rome Hary set an Olympic record of 10.2s in the quarterfinals and repeated the feat in the final where he was called back for a false start. His second start was still explosive enough for him to lead by one metre in the first 10-metre segment.

The 1960s saw the emergence of black American sprinters, heavy, muscular and explosive. As far back as 1932 there was one American black, Eddie Tolan, who won the Olympic 100, but it was the emergence of Bob Hayes in the Tokyo Games that marked the real impact of the black American sprinter.

Hayes clocked a wind-aided 9.9 in the semifinal and then was timed in 10.0 in the final for a world record. By then Armin Hary, Harry Jerome (Canada) and Haracio Estevez (Venezuela) had also timed 10.0 between 1960 and 1964 outside of the Olympics.

But Hayes’s happened to be the first electronic time used officially. The timings were rounded down to reach manual timings to account for the inherent delay in the system. Hayes’s electronic time was 10.06 with a wind-speed of 1.3m/s.

The first officially recognised electronic world record in the 100m came at the next Olympics in Mexico City. That was the Olympics that used synthetic track for the first time. The Mexican capital also afforded extra benefit to the sprinters and jumpers because of its altitude of 7382 feet.

Jim Hines clocked 9.9 seconds for the record. His electronically timed 9.95s that was rounded down to get 9.9 was later accepted as the first official world record under the electronic system.

Hines’s Olympic record remained till Seoul 1988 when Carl Lewis was given the world record of 9.92s following Canadian Ben Johnson’s doping disqualification. Johnson had timed 9.79s in the Seoul final and eventually the IAAF annulled that as well as his 9.83s he timed in the Rome World championships in 1987.

Canadian Donovan Bailey’s world and Olympic record of 9.84 in 1996 stood for 12 years before Usain Bolt arrived.

Bolt’s entry turned sprinting theory on its head. Tall sprinters were supposed to be at a disadvantage especially at the start. Though Bolt might not be the best of ‘starters’, he made up for that and more with his long strides during the second 50 metres.

His 9.69s world record in the Beijing Games final captivated millions of fans around the world. He had clocked a world record time of 9.72s in New York that season, but not many had taken note of it.


He dropped his arms and went through an impromptu celebration as he neared the finish in Beijing, losing precious fractions that the commentators, experts and ex-Olympians roundly criticised.

Trinidadian Ato Boldon estimated that Bolt could have clocked 9.59 had he avoided the pranks at the finish, cutting one stride down from the 41 he took to the world record. The secret of Bolt’s speed, experts said, was in taking lesser strides than others. Donovan Bailey put it between 9.55 and 9.57 in case he had not eased up.

Can someone drop his arms, celebrate towards the finish and yet clock 9.69? That was the question people asked. How much can he clock if he runs through the finish?

The answer came next year in the Berlin World championships with 9.58s. Bolt bettered his Olympic record with 9.63s in London last time.

The 100m was part of the Olympic programme ever since the women’s events were included in the games from 1928 in Amsterdam.

Sixteen-year-old Betty Robinson of the US was the inaugural women’s 100m winner in a world-record-equalling 12.2s. Fanny Rosenfeld of Canada was also given a time of 12.2, though ‘’estimated”, and thus not officially recognised a world record equalling performance.

Poland-born Stanislawa Walasiewicz was settled in the US from a young age, but chose to represent her home country, though she did compete twice in the US trials.

Stanislawa clocked 11.9 in the heats, semi-finals and finals of the 1932 Los Angeles Games equalling the world record Tollien Schuurman of Holland had set the same year.

Only the 11.9 that she clocked in the semi-final was ratified though in the final, Hilda Strike of Canada was also given the same time. Stanislawa went on to clock a world record of 11.8s in Poznan in 1933 and next year bettered it to 11.7 in Warsaw. Later, in 1935, American Helen Stephens who won the 1936 Olympics title in Berlin, bettered the world record with 11.6 in Kansas City while Stanislawa equalled it in Berlin in 1937.

The London Olympics, the first games in the post-War period was completely dominated by the Dutchwoman Fanny Blankers-Koen. At the age of 30, she won four Olympic titles including the 100m in 11.9s. She was the world record holder then at 11.5s.

Aussie Marjorie Jackson won the 1952 Helsinki Olympics in a world record-equalling 11.5s (11.67 electronic). Blankers-Koen had come for her second Olympics, but suffering from an infection that required antibiotics injections, she withdrew at the semi-final stage.

Jackson won the final with a huge margin of 0.38s, the widest till then from Hasne Robb of South Africa. The Aussie had an unratified world record of 11.5 in the semi-final also.

Expectedly the world record fell in Mexico City, where the altitude helped shatter many a sprint and jump record. Polish woman Irene Szewinska who would retire as one of the greatest woman athletes in the 1980 Games, was the first to equal the record in the quarter-finals. She timed 11.1 to equal the mark set by American Barbara Ferrell in 1967.

Wyomia Tyus of the US who had won in Tokyo in 11.4 seconds clocked a stunning 11.0 in the final. The IAAF later accepted this at 11.08 electronic to ratify it as a world record timed electronically.

Munich saw the introduction of an electronic timing system that the IAAF accepted for listing Olympic results in one-hundredth of a second. Till then timings were measured in halves to begin with, then quarters and much later fifth of a second and tenth of a second.

GDR’s Renate Stetcher clocked 11.07 seconds in Munich for the world record. The Olympic record stood till Los Angeles in 1984 when Evelyn Ashford, the American express, brought off a 10.97s finish to win from a field that contained two superb Jamaicans Merlene Ottey and Grace Jackson apart from her American team-mate Alice Brown who finished second in 11.13.

The world record by then had come down to 10.79s, also registered by Ashford in Colorado Springs in July 1983. Ashford bettered that mark with 10.76 in Zurich after the Olympics.

The US Olympic trials in 1988 brought about that unbelievable 10.49s from Florence Griffith Joyner in Indianapolis.

Flo Jo could not reproduce that timing in the Olympics in Seoul where she set the world record of 21.34s in the 200m. But she timed 10.88 in the first round (equalled by Ashford) and a 10.62 in the next round that has remained the Olympic record. In the final it was wind-aided 10.54s (3.0m/s). Ashford came second in 10.83.

Flo Jo’s world record has looked beyond the reach of mere mortals, even with drugs in their system. The American, it was felt by experts, was given the world record despite clear indications of wind speed definitely not 0.0 as given that day in Indianapolis. Flo Jo’s death at the age of 38 also added to the belief that she must have been on performance-enhancing drugs to have improved so dramatically from 10.99 in 1984 and 10.96 in 1987 to 10.49 in 1988. Equally incredible, if not more, was her jump from 21.96s in 1987 to 21.34s in 1988.

Only Americans Carmelita Jeter (10.64 in Shanghai, 2009) and the discredited Marion Jones (10.65 in Johannesburg, 1998) have come anywhere close to the feats of Flo Jo.

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