The women come in!

Halina Konopacka of Poland became the first gold medal winner in athletics in the women’s section, winning the discus title on 31 July, 1928 with a world record of 39.62m. Konopacka had set five world records between 1925 and 1927 and was the firm favourite to win in Amsterdam.

American Betty Robinson (second from left) wins the final of the women's 100 metres event during the Olympic Games in Amsterdam on July 31, 1928.   -  getty images

The Olympic Games introduced women’s events in 1928 in Amsterdam. Just the 100m, 800m, high jump, discus throw and 4x100m were featured.

These were the Games that saw the beginning of the Japanese era in men’s triple jump. Mikio Oda was the pioneer among the Japanese. Oda won Asia’s first Olympic gold with an effort of 15.21m. Oda was sixth in Paris in 1924 when Australian Nick Winter won the gold with a world record of 15.52m. He learnt from his experience there and came back to take the title to begin a glorious phase for Japanese triple jumpers. Chuhei Nambu, another Japanese who was fourth, would win later in the 1932 Games.

Bud Houser (US), who had taken the men’s shot put-discus double in the previous edition, did not go for a repeat and concentrated just on the discus in which he was the then world record holder at 48.20m. He managed only 47.32m but that proved just enough to retain the title. The other medallists, Finn Aritero Kivi (47.23m) and American James Corson (47.10) made it a close contest.

With Houser absent, world record holder Emil Hirschfeld of Germany could have been expected to have little challenge in shot put. But it did not turn out that way. John Kuck of the US brought out a world record of 15.87m and his team-mate Herman Brix pulled off a 15.75 to keep Hirschfeld down to the third spot.

Halina Konopacka of Poland became the first gold medal winner in athletics in the women’s section, winning the discus title on 31 July, 1928 with a world record of 39.62m. Konopacka had set five world records between 1925 and 1927 and was the firm favourite to win in Amsterdam. In the qualification round her 39.17 missed the world record by one centimetre.

Betty Robinson of the US, with a world-record-equalling 12.2s for the 100m gold, was the other notable winner in the inaugural year of women’s athletics in the Olympics.

1932 Los Angeles

As early as 1928, electronic devices were used to record timings, but till the 1972 Munich Games, these were not given officially in the results. In later years the IAAF did approve several electronic timings including a few world records, where available, but still lists all results up to 1972 in one-tenth of a second.

In Los Angeles, despite the use of a photo-finish camera (the Kirby camera), there arose a controversy in the men’s 100m final. Americans Ralph Metcalfe, the favourite, and Eddie Tolan, finished together, leaving the judges with a difficult task. It took two hours before Tolan was adjudged the winner. Both were given the world-record-equalling time of 10.3 (both timed 10.38 electronically).

Tolan won again the 200m in an American sweep in which George Simpson and Metcalfe were second and third. It was then found that Metcalfe’s starting placement was 1.5m back. Unbeaten in the 200 before the Games, Metcalfe, though offered a re-run, declined in order not to upset the American sweep!

Metcalfe established himself as the best sprinter for at least two years after the Olympics but in the 1934 AAU championships he was troubled in the 100 by a young black sprinter. His name — Jesse Owens. Neither Metcalfe nor the rest of the field would have realised then that they had raced against someone who would acquire legendary status two years hence.

Finland’s first love in athletics has been javelin throw. Matti Jarvinen was one of the Finnish pioneers in the art of throwing the spear. He led a Finnish sweep in 1932, setting an Olympic record of 72.71m. He was injured four years later and could finish no better than fifth. He set 10 world records between 1930 and 1936, the last one in Helsinki measuring 77.23m.

Turning our attention towards the women’s section, we can find that Mildred ‘Babe’ Didriksen competed in three events in the 1932 Games and won medals in all three, ranging from sprint hurdling to jumping to throwing. The American was the first to achieve such a distinction in the Olympics.

She took the javelin gold with 43.69m, injuring her shoulder in the process, then won the 80m hurdles in a world record 11.7s and finally had to settle for the silver in high jump after tying with team-mate Jean Shiley at 1.65m.

Both Shiley and Didriksen cleared 1.65 in their first attempt. Shiley cleared 1.67m in the jump-off. Didriksen also cleared that height but officials ruled that she had cleared head first and as per prevailing rules it was invalid! Didriksen reportedly said she had jumped the same style all day!

1936 Berlin

Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin to record a unique feat then in Olympic athletics. The Alabama-born black American disproved Hitler’s theory of Nazi racist superiority by completely dominating the Games. Of particular significance was Owens’s long jump victory over German Luz Long, a tough competitor who all the same gave sound advice to the eventual winner in the qualifying round when the American opened with two fouls and risked elimination. Long suggested that Owens take off well back and jump in a relaxed manner and the qualifying mark of 7.15m would be his without a problem. That is what happened.

Till then qualifying marks were carried forward to the final. Berlin saw the end of such a practice. Owens won with a wind-aided 8.06m while Long had 7.87 and Japanese Naoto Tajima 7.74m. All marks were wind-aided in that competition where the previous Olympic record of 7.73m was bettered 12 times!

Owens, who set six world records in one day in 1935, a record yet to be matched by any athlete, won the 100m in 10.3s having equalled the world record of 10.2s in the heats. He took the 200m next in 20.7 and led off the US 4x100 relay team on the concluding day for a world record of 39.8s.

Owens was disqualified by the American association after the Olympics when he refused to participate in a tour of Scandinavia. He later raced horses and dogs to earn a living. He died at the age of 66 in March, 1980.

Naoto Tajima was the first athlete to triple jump 16 metres in the world. Mikio Oda had set the trend for the Japanese in 1928. Chuhei Nambu maintained the chain in 1932 with a world record of 15.72 and Tajima yet again brought Japan to the fore in Berlin. In fact in 1936 the top four in the world were Japanese. Masao Harada came second with 15.66m while a third Japanese, Kenkichi Oshima, was sixth with 15.07m. In 1934 Oshima had set a record of 15.82m in Osaka but it was not ratified by the IAAF. After opening with 15.07m Oshima had five fouls in Berlin!

1948 London

The war having robbed the world of two of the Olympic editions, many great athletes were denied the opportunity to showcase their talent on the biggest stage of them all.

But someone like Fanny Blankers-Koen made her Olympic debut at the age of 30! The ‘star of the London Games’ was Blankers-Koen. The Dutch housewife won four gold medals to establish herself as the best all-round woman athlete of all-time. Blankers-Koen was already the world record holder in 100 yards (10.8s), 100m (11.5s), 80m hurdles (11.0s), high jump (1.1m) and long jump (6.25m) before she came to London. She won the 100m, 80m hurdles and the newly-introduced 200m apart from being part of the Netherlands gold-medal winning 4x100m relay team in the Olympics. No woman before her or after had shown such all-round ability being No. 1 in a variety of individual events. No woman athlete has since won four gold medals.

Blankers-Koen took the 100m in London clocking 11.9s into a headwind, won the 80m hurdles, beating Briton Maureen Gardener in a tight finish with the latter also being given the same time of 11.2s as the Dutchwoman and then claimed the 200m in 24.4s. She took her team from fourth to first to script a fairytale finish to her Olympic voyage in the 4x100m.

Another legend made his Olympic debut in London at the age of 26. Emil Zatopek did not have much experience over the 10,000m though by virtue of his 29:37.0 six weeks before the Games he was one of the favourites along with Finland’s Viljo Heino. As it turned out Heino dropped out during the race and Zatopek did not have much trouble beating Algeria-born Frenchman Alain Mimoun, by a margin of 47.8 seconds, the biggest in Olympic history. Mimoun remained a friend of the Czech through his career. Zatopek also claimed the silver in the 5000m behind Belgian Gaston Reiff.

An Olympic decathlon champion at 17 years of age was unheard of till Bob Mathias came up in the London Games to win with 7139 points. Lying third at the end of day one, the American prodigy took the lead after the seventh event, the discus, his forte. “Never again,” he said after the 1500m, the last event that normally leaves the decathletes almost dead. In his career, he set world records in decathlon three times, with one unratified.

Harrison Dillard was another athlete who impressed in London. He was influenced by Jesse Owens whom he met when he was 14. The quadruple Olympic champion inspired Dillard. By the time the London Games came around Dillard was the world record holder in the 110m hurdles. But in the US trials he fell and failed to qualify. However, he made it in third place in the 100m and was not rated high by the experts to win a medal in the Olympics.

Dillard surprised them all winning from a formidable 100m field. In the final before 84,000 spectators he led throughout to win in an Olympic record-equalling 10.3s. Dillard was also part of the US 4x100 team that won the gold. In 1952 he won two gold medals again, in 110m hurdles and the shorter relay.

1952 Helsinki

Zatopek wrote athletics history in Helsinki by winning the 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon. Never before had anyone achieved this treble and never since has anyone achieved it either in the Olympics or the World Championships. That Zatopek did it in the land of distance runners added to the glitter of his outstanding achievement.

Paavo Nurmi, torch-bearer at the opening ceremony, had wanted to attempt it in 1924 but was prevented by his country because of the tight schedule. Another Finn, Hannes Kolehmainen had won all three titles in Olympics but in different editions. No one could imagine tackling the three distances during the course of an Olympics, leave alone achieving success in all three.

On July 20 Zatopek won the 10,000m without trouble in 29:17.00, an Olympic record. On July 22 he went through the heats of the 5000m and on July 24 its final. The 5000 proved quite tough. With defending champion Reiff, Mimoun and Britons Gordon Pirie and Chris Chataway in the field it couldn’t have been otherwise for the 30-year-old Czech. He timed 14:06.6 with Mimoun second at 14:07.4. Zatopek was so exhausted he did not wait to see his wife Dana winning the javelin with an Olympic record of 50.47m.

Three days later, Zatopek won the marathon. Running the distance for the first time ever, Zatopek is reported to have asked Britain’s Jim Peters, the world leader that year, at 15 km whether the pace was too fast. One account says Peters replied it was too slow which prompted Zatopek to speed away, never to look back. Peters retired after 30 km with leg cramps. Zatopek (2:23:03.2) was in the end 2:30 ahead of silver medallist Reinaldo Gorno of Argentina.

The ‘glide’ in shot put was invented by Parry O’Brien. The American revolutionised shot putting technique with his unique style of turning his back to the throwing line and taking a 180 degree turn instead of the 90-degree one. He developed a style that generated speed and power and requires strength. Latter years’ shot putters mostly used this technique that came to be known as the ‘O’Brien glide’ or simply the ‘glide.’ Another popular technique that came about later was the ‘spin.’

O’Brien led an American sweep of medals in 1952, taking gold with 17.41m. Darrow Hooper (17.39m) and Jim Fuchs (17.06m) were the other medallists. O’Brien set nine world records between 1953 and 1959, closing with 19.30m. But his best came after the end of his career, a 19.69m. By the time he retired others were reaching 21 metres.

Adhemar Da Silva was a pioneer in triple jumping in Brazil. He set two world records in Helsinki in winning the gold medal, 16.12m in his second attempt and 16.22m in his fifth. Of the Brazilians who followed him with great distinction in later years, Joao Carlos de Oliveira set a world record of 17.89m in 1975.

The Jamaican men’s 4x400m relay team pulled off the upset of the Games, edging the US in a close finish and clocking a world record time of 3:03.9. The team comprised Arthur Wint, Olympic 400m champion in 1948, Lesley Laing, Gorge Rhoden and Herb McKenley, former world record holder in 400m at 45.9s.

1956 Melbourne

The Australians were bound to gain an edge at home. Betty Cuthbert won the women’s sprint double while Shirley Strickland retained her 100m hurdles title.

On the men’s side, Bobby Morrow became the last white man to win the sprint title for the US. He ran a 10.5s in the final against a headwind measuring 5m/s. Experts estimated that his timing would have been in the region of 10.25s without wind hampering him. He also won the 200m in a world record-equalling 20.6s (20.75s electronic).

Vladimir Kuts, a Ukrainian-born Soviet runner, scored the distance double in Melbourne to provide a break from Western Europe domination. What was remarkable about Kuts’s victories was the margin of around 65 metres (11 seconds) that he had in finishing ahead of Briton Gordon Pirie in the 5000m in 13:39.6. He won the 10,000m in an Olympic record of 28:45.6.

1960 Rome

Rome saw the advent of the barefooted wonders of Africa. Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia was the man who caught the world attention with his effortless style of running and pace. He opened up a great opportunity for the Ethiopians and the Kenyans in later years. Bikila won the Rome marathon in 2:15:16, an awesome timing by the standards in those days. He was treated as a national hero back home where he was one of the Palace guards (Negus Guards) of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Herb Elliott, coached by the famous Percy Ceruty, was an outstanding miler from Australia. He was unbeaten going into the Olympics and lived up to his reputation at the Games winning the 1500m in a world record 3:35.6.

Armin Hary had the reputation of being the “thief of starts” for his electrifying starts, some of them false, that used to escape the starter’s attention. He became the first German to win a track gold in Rome, taking the 100m in an Olympic record of 10.2s.

Another ‘first’ was registered by Livio Berruti who became the first non-American to win an Olympic 200m title. The sunglasses-wearing Italian equalled the world record of 20.5s twice to provide great cheer to the home fans. Some athletes are born to run or jump or throw. Some others defy odds to conquer the world. Wilma Rudolph overcame the effects of polio and an assortment of health problems to make the US team. The rest is history. Wilma Rudolph was born prematurely and with polio in a poor family in Tennessee, USA. At the age of four she was struck by scarlet fever and double pneumonia. Her leg was crooked and she had to wear a leg brace. You couldn’t have imagined that such a girl would become Olympic sprint champion one day.

At the age of 16 Wilma made the US Olympic team and won a bronze with the 4x100m relay team in Melbourne. She saw Australian Betty Cuthbert taking the sprint double and told herself that she would win a medal in the next Olympics. She won three! She beat Britain’s Dorothy Hyman by two and a half metres in the 100m in Rome, clocking a wind-aided 11.0s, timed 24.0 against the wind in the 200m and was part of a world record-setting (44.4s) US sprint relay team. She died of cancer at 54 in 1994.

One race that the Indians would recall for eternity was the men’s 400m final in Rome. It was the closest one-lapper in the history of the Olympics and in the end Otis Davis of the US and Carl Kaufmann of Germany were credited with the same time of 44.9s. The American was placed first. Their automatic times were 45.07s and 45.08s. For India, Milkha Singh’s fourth place finish in a national record of 45.6s (45.73) was agonising as well as joyful. Agonising because he missed the bronze by the proverbial whisker; joyful because an Indian had reached a track final for the first time.