- Jesse Owens: Non-verbal rebellion, inspired by hatred.
- Bob Hayes: No one faster than the speeding bullet.
- Bob Beamon: The leap heard around the world.
- Dave Wottle: It’s never too late to be great.
- Carl Lewis: The misunderstood track genius does it like no other.
- Michael Johnson: Track’s leading man.
- Jackie Joyner-Kersee: From Nowhere to Somewhere.
- Sebastian Coe: Britain’s Iron Man delivers.
- Flo Jo: Brilliant at the highest speeds.
- Edwin Moses: A self-made man. Getting over hurdles was a skill Edwin Moses learned early in life. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta which had a track team, no track, and no coach for him. He had run just one hurdle race prior to March 1976. As a 20-year-old unknown college student, he went to the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Moses broke the 400-meter hurdle world record running 47.64, winning gold by an eight meter victory in his first international competition.
- Carl Lewis: Outraging fans and sponsors.
The revolution was televised. The black-and-white footage of Jesse Owens defeating Hitler’s Aryan nation still brings a chill. In front of packed crowds, he showed the world Hitler’s theory was a crock of crap. Jesse achieved international fame in winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Games in the 100, 200, long jump and 4 x 100 meter relay.
By the summer of 1964, Bob “The Bullet” Hayes was dubbed the original “World’s Fastest Human” at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. The U.S. team was in fifth place when Hayes got the baton in this famous 4 x 100 meter relay — he couldn’t even reach out and touch them.
In perhaps the most memorable 100-meters in track history, he blew away the competition and turned a nine-meter deficit into a two-meter victory. The winning time of 39.0 seconds was a world record, and Hayes' leg was timed unofficially in 8.6 seconds, still the fastest ever. That’s not running, that’s space travel.
Life is short, but great performances last forever. Just after Beamon barely made the 1968 Olympic squad, he unleashed the most fearsome long jump ever, featuring the most perfect combination of running and jumping. Beamon surprised even himself, collapsing when hearing he soared 29 feet, 2 ½ inches. He shattered the original mark by almost 22 inches. That’s as close as man has ever come to human flight. Bob’s record stood 23 years.
Once upon a time Ethiopian and Kenyan runners dominated the middle distances. Against this backdrop at the 1972 Munich Olympics, 24-year-old American runner Dave Wottle was in last place in the 800-meter finals. Then the tension set in: starting at 500 meters, Wottle starting picking off runners one at a time. Coming down the final stretch, he hit the gas and won the 800-meters by .03 at the finish line. To this day, Wottle remains the only American to win at 800-meters since Munich.
Although an often polarizing figure in the sport, Carl Lewis was a magnificent, daring sprinter. He was a flawless runner and jumper with a keen ability under pressure. Carl Lewis pounced on every step of the 100-meters, 200-meters, and long jump, 4 x 100-meter relay to win every battle in which he competed at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. The elaborately executed performances became an Olympic memory reminiscent of Jesse Owen’s four gold medal feat in 1936.
Between 1992 and 1996, Michael Johnson was track’s most reliable mindblower: winning 58 straight races over eight years. By 1996, the stage had been set at the Atlanta Olympic games, as some of the greatest 200-meter runners ever gathered for the event’s finals.
The gun went off, and MJ stumbled the fourth step. He then covered the first 100 meters faster than any human ever, even out running the NBC track side camera. He crossed the line, and it was immediately evident he was track’s undisputed champ having offered further evidence of his mastery.
It is a gritty road to the top, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee couldn’t compete in a more demanding event than her signature heptathlon: 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200m, long jump, javelin and 800m. It’s a definitive test of quickness, strength, and heart.
Her 1988 Olympic appearance produced the still-standing world record of 7,291 points. Not enough to let that victory stand alone, JJK showed up five days later to grab the gold again – this time in long jump, gliding to 24 feet, 3 ½ inches. JJK had the audacity to stake a claim at being the greatest female athlete ever—and then pulled it off.
In 1983, Sebastian Coe had recently undergone lymph node surgery – a situation that his detractors said would sideline him for that year’s World Championships. But the following year, he was determined to win back-to-back Olympic 1500-meter titles.
It wouldn’t come easy – he was facing challengers Steve Ovett and Steve Cram, who was considered the odd’s-on favorite for the gold at the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angles. Coe shocked the critics when he ran a perfect race, pulling away from Cram and the rest of the field in the final straightaway to win by six meters. His determination, style, and pace influenced a generation of runners.
This track queen is an icon on two counts: she gave the first cross-over performance by a female track athlete and gave one of the most mesmerizing performances in recent history. The 1988 Seoul Olympic Games were Flo Jo’s show and she had her own superstar act. Her races included decorated nails, stylish outfits, and stunning looks. In the 100-meter final in Seoul, the 5-foot-7, 130-pound Joyner bettered the Olympic record with her 10.54. She blistered the 200-meters finals, and Flo Jo delivered an amazing 21.34 in capturing her second gold medal. Joyner, who died in her sleep in 1998, still holds the women’s 100 and 200-meter world records.
By the summer of 1996, Carl’s meteoric career had suffered some set backs. Though he won four gold medals at the 1984 L.A. Olympics, he never won fans over, at least in the United States. This time, the King of Track was in a battle with Mike Powell at Atlanta Olympic stadium.
Carl wanted revenge: Powell had beaten him at the previous world championships and broken the long jump world record. An athletic shade of his former self, Carl Lewis delivered big. At 35, he pulled out some mojo to jump 27 feet, 10 ¾ inches, his longest distance in four years. That night in Atlanta was a reminder that others had run faster and jumped farther, but few had sustained such a high level of performance for so long.
By Jay Hicks, a.k.a. Track Evangelist.