Our countdown of the greatest Olympic athletes for each event group reaches it climax with the men’s sprinting events
With an upright stance, low knee lift and short stride length, Michael Johnson’s running defied all convention. But ugly though it was, it produced results; superb results, in fact.
Having picked up the sport at the age of 10, it was when Johnson joined Baylor University and linked up with sprints coach Clyde Hart that he really started to progress. At the age of 20 he had hopes of making the US Olympic team for the 1988 Games after running a 20.07 PB at the start of the summer, but a stress fracture to his fibula ruled him out for most of the season.
After graduating from university in 1990, Johnson soon made a name for himself on the international circuit as an exciting long sprints talent. Undefeated in both events all year, he ran a world-leading 19.85 over 200m and set a PB of 44.21 in the 400m.
His first major championships appearance was a successful one. Despite running a world-leading 44.17 for 400m, Johnson focused on the 200m at the 1991 World Championships. Running into a -3.4m/s headwind, Johnson won by a third of a second to take gold in 20.01.
As the reigning world champion, Johnson was heavily tipped to win his first Olympic gold in 1992. He was in the form of his life that summer, winning the US Trials 200m with a PB of 19.79 and two weeks later broke 44 seconds in the 400m for the first time with 43.98.
But just days before the Barcelona Games began, Johnson contracted food poisoning and was below his best, failing to make the 200m final. To this day it remains the only blemish on an otherwise stunning championships CV with gold in every major event he has contested.
He still wasn’t at full fitness when he took part in the 4x400m relay in Barcelona, but despite running the slowest split of the team (44.7), the USA still managed to set a world record of 2:55.74.
Back at his best in 1993, Johnson focused on the 400m at that year’s World Championships in Stuttgart and won gold with a PB of 43.65. Two years later he attempted the 200m and 400m sprint double for the first time at a global championships, using the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg as a dress rehearsal for the following year’s Olympics.
The risk paid off and he made history by taking gold in both events, running 19.79 in the 200m and 43.39 in the 400m – just 0.10 shy of the world record set by Butch Reynolds seven years prior.
However good his 1995 World Championships double was, his 1996 Olympic double was even better. At the US Trials that year he provided a glimpse of what was to come with a world record of 19.66 in the 200m. But even then, no one could have predicted just how much quicker he was set to run on the Olympic stage.
First up at the Atlanta Games was the 400m, and Johnson scooped his first individual Olympic gold by breaking the Olympic record with 43.49. He was back on track the very next morning for the 200m heats and duly made it through to the final. Running in a pair of golden spikes, Johnson tore apart the field in the final with a sensational world record of 19.32 – the largest ever improvement on a 200m world record.
At the following year’s World Championships, Johnson focused on the longer event and won his fifth individual world title with a 44.12 clocking.
Two years later, Johnson wanted more than just gold from the 1999 World Championships in Seville – he wanted to take down the 400m world record that had so far eluded him throughout his career, despite having more sub-44 clockings than anyone in history. He more than delivered, winning gold with a world record of 43.18.
The 2000 Olympics would be his swan song. He had intended to once again double up, as he did in Atlanta four years prior. In order to make the team in the 200m, it meant he had to face world 100m record-holder Maurice Greene – a sprinter he rarely raced against, but there was clearly no love lost between the pair. In freak circumstances, both athletes pulled up injured in the 200m final at the US Trials as they both failed to make the Olympic team.
With the 400m as his sole focus at the Sydney Games, Johnson successfully defending his title. Two weeks after turning 33 years old, he won the third Olympic gold of his career in 43.84.
The other athletes who received votes from readers of Athletics Weekly.
Voted the greatest Olympic jumps athlete of all-time in this series, Lewis was also one of the top Olympians in the sprints. He won the sprint double at the 1984 Games, forming half of his gold medal haul from the Los Angeles Olympics. Four years later in Seoul he finished second in both sprinting events, but was later awarded the 100m gold after Ben Johnson tested positive.
The biggest thing to ever happen to the sport of track and field, the Jamaican was the star of the 2008 Olympics after winning gold in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m, setting world records in all three events. His manner of victory in the 100m – where he switched off some 20 metres before the line to turn to the crowds and celebrate – announced the arrival of the greatest showman of the sport. One year later he improved his world records in both sprints at the 2009 World Championships.
The American dominated the 100m throughout the late Nineties and early Naughties. After back-to-back world titles in 1997 and 1999, Greene won Olympic gold in 2000. A new guard of sprinters began to arrive on the scene by the time of the 2004 Games, but Greene showed he was still a force by taking bronze in the 100m.
Everyone knows about the first sub-four-minute mile, but the first sub-10-second 100m – a performance of a much higher quality – is nowhere near as celebrated. Hines was the first person to achieve that feat when he won 100m gold at the 1968 Games.
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