Our countdown of the greatest Olympic athletes for each event group begins with the women’s combined events
There are just 100 days left before the world’s biggest sporting event kicks off in London. To mark this, over the next 14 weeks we will be featuring profiles of some of the sport’s top stars, as voted for by you for our Greatest Olympic Athletes bookazine. The series begins with the women’s combined events.
American heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee is arguably the sport’s best ever all-round talent, and one of the greatest athletes of all time.
Her first Olympic experience came at the age of 22 when, competing in front of a home crowd at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, she narrowly missed out on the heptathlon gold by just five points. She was also just outside the medals in the long jump, finishing fifth.
But less than a year later she began her incredible rapid rise to the top, breaking the American record in the long jump and extending it to 7.24m. In 1986 she broke the world record in the heptathlon, becoming the first woman to score more than 7000 points. She scored 7148 in Moscow before adding a further 10 points to the record one month later in Houston.
Joyner-Kersee, who married her long-time coach Bob Kersee and was sister-in-law to world record-breaking sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner, won her first global titles in 1987, taking a long jump and heptathlon double at the World Championships in Rome. That same year she also broke the world record in the long jump with 7.45m.
It proved to be something of a dress rehearsal for the following year’s Olympics, as the replicated the feat at the Seoul Games. First up was the heptathlon, and Joyner-Kersee was in sublime form. Within the seven-event challenge, she broke the Olympic long jump record with 7.27m en route to smashing the world heptathlon record with 7291 – a score that remains in tact and unchallenged today. A few days later she added the long jump gold to her tally, breaking the Olympic record again with 7.40m.
At the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo, Joyner-Kersee successfully defended her long jump title, but it wasn’t without drama. Having posted a leading jump of 7.27m, half-way through the competition she twisted her ankle when taking off on one of her jumps. It looked as though she would be out for the rest of the season, let alone the competition, but she received emergency treatment and returned to the runway before the end of the competition, incredibly posting another seven-metre-plus jump and holding on to the gold medal. The injury got the better of her two days later in the heptathlon, however, and she had to withdraw from the competition.
She bounced back in time to win another Olympic gold in the heptathlon in 1992, also taking bronze in the long jump. In 1993 she made up for the injury disappointment of two years prior and regained her world heptathlon title. The following year she focused on the long jump and was rewarded with a lifetime best and American record of 7.49m.
In 1996 the Olympic Games returned to the USA. By now, Joyner-Kersee was 34 years old and knew that it would be her last shot of winning an Olympic medal. But her campaign was almost brought to a halt when she picked up an injury at the US Trials. She still hadn’t fully recovered by the time of the Games and she was forced to withdraw from the heptathlon as the pain was unbearable.
Determined not to bow out on a low, Joyner-Kersee made it to the runway for the long jump final. After five rounds she was sitting in sixth place, but on her final jump she sailed out to 7.00m to take the bronze medal, ending her Olympic career with a podium finish.
The other athletes who received votes from readers of Athletics Weekly.
Swedish star struck gold at the Athens Olympics with a dominant display of all-round brilliance, winning gold with a winning margin of more than 500 points. She prematurely retired from the heptathlon a few years later, focusing instead on jumping.
Sister of legendary thrower Tamara, Irina was a star athlete in her own right. The Soviet athlete won 1960 Olympic gold in the 80m hurdles, then took Olympic gold four years later in the pentathlon with a world record.
After taking bronze in 1996, British heptathlete improved to gold at the Sydney Games. Her body was held together with tape, but she held on to finish the competition in pole position.
The Northern Irish athlete pushed her body to the limits at the 1972 Games in an incredible pentathlon competition against Heide Rosendahl, taking gold with a world record 4801.
» Click here to read the other athletes profiled in our ‘Greatest Olympic athletes’ countdown.
» All of these athletes and more are featured in AW‘s bookazine, The Greatest Olympic Athletes, available now for just £9.99.
» You can also pre-order our next special publication – The Greatest Show On Earth – our in-depth preview to the London 2012 Olympics.