Our countdown of the greatest Olympic athletes for each event group continues with the women’s sprinting events
Irena Szewinska can lay claim to being one of the greatest ever all-round sprinters, because no other athlete in history has held world records in the 100m, 200m and 400m.
That was not the extent of her talents, however – indeed, the Pole’s first appearance in an Olympic arena came in the long jump at the 1968 Games. Aged just 18 years old at the time, she defeated the pre-event favourite Tatyana Shchelkanova to take the silver medal with 6.60m, beaten only by Mary Rand who set a world record of 6.76m to win.
A few days later, Szewinska was back in action and in more familiar territory she took silver in the 200m. With a fast finish, the teenager was just 0.08 away from the gold medal.
But she gained redemption in her final event of the Games, the 4x100m, and Szewinska teamed up with 100m bronze medallist Ewa Klobukowska to take the gold medal with a world record of 43.69. With two silvers and one gold, it was a pretty successful Olympic debut for Szewinska.
In 1965, while still a junior, she set worlds records in the 100m (11.1) and 200m (22.7). The following year was all about medals, and Szewinska came close to pulling off a quadruple gold medal haul at the European Championships. In a close finish in the 100m she had to settle for silver to team-mate Klobukowska, but went on to strike gold in the 200m, long jump and 4x100m relay.
At the 1968 Olympics, Szewinska equalled the world record in the 100m quarter-final before taking the bronze medal in the final. A few days later she won her first individual Olympic gold medal, setting a world record of 22.5 to take victory in the 200m.
But the week ended with disappointment as Poland – the defending Olympic champions – failed to make the final in the 4x100m.
After taking 200m bronze at the 1972 Olympics, Szewinska began to dabble in the 400m. In 1974 in one of her first ever races at the distance she broke the world record with 49.9 and in doing so became the first woman to dip under 50 seconds. Later that year she returned to the 100m and 200m to win the sprints double at the Europeans.
Szewinska once again returned to the top of the podium at the 1976 Olympics, winning gold in her new event and improving her own world record to 49.29, winning by almost 10 metres.
Two years later, a new East German sprinter had emerged in the form of Marita Koch and the then 21-year-old began her world record rampage. Koch won the 1978 European 400m title by 1.44 seconds while Szewinska, now 32, missed out on silver by just 0.02.
Szewinska continued competing for another two years and made her fifth Olympic Games appearance in Moscow at age 34. But an untimely injury saw her fade to last in her 400m semi-final.
With a total of seven Olympic medals, Szewinska equalled the record tally achieved by Shirley Strickland. It has since been bettered by Merlene Ottey with nine, although – unlike Szewinska and Strickland – none of Ottey’s Olympic medals were gold.
The other athletes who received votes from readers of Athletics Weekly.
The American was known almost as much for her on-track fashion statements as she was for her record-breaking exploits. She took silver in the 200m at the 1984 Olympics and 1987 World Championships, but came out all guns blazing in the 1988 season. She set an incredible – although questionable – world 100m record of 10.49 at the US Trials before going on to take the Olympic sprint double with a windy 10.54 in the 100m and a world record of 21.34 in the 200m. She picked up further medals in the 4x100m (gold) and 4x400m (silver), and her world records still stand to this day.
At the same 1996 Atlanta Games where Michael Johnson won a 200m and 400m double, Frenchwoman Marie-José Pérec achieved the same double. Her 200m gold was her first global title in that event, but her victory in the longer sprint was less of a surprise as she was the defending Olympic champion, the reigning European champion and the two-time world champion. Her 400m winning time of 48.25 from the Atlanta Games remains the Olympic record.
The East German was the first woman to break 11 seconds in the 100m, but her greatest achievement came at the 1972 Games where she won both the 100m and 200m and took silver in the 4x100m. She once again made the podium in all three events at the 1976 Olympics with silver in the 100m, bronze in the 200m and gold in the 4x100m. During her career she set 34 world records indoors and out, including relays.
As a 19-year-old the American surprised her team-mate Edith McGuire to win the 1964 Olympic 100m title, and adding to her tally with silver in the 4x100m. Four years later she made history by becoming the first athlete, man or woman, to successfully defend an Olympic 100m title and set a world record of 11.0 in the process. She went one better in the relay too, taking gold.
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