In a special series in the run-up to Rio 2016, Steve Smythe looks at the history of events at the Olympics, beginning with the men’s 100m

If athletics were allowed just one event to be featured in the Olympics, it would surely be the men’s 100 metres. Over the past 120 years, the battle to find who is the world’s fastest man has often been the most notable and memorable race of each Games.

The last two Olympics have been dominated by Usain Bolt in the fastest ever times and in Rio, he will attempt to become the first ever triple champion, or indeed the first ever triple medallist. The 2004 champion Justin Gatlin, who was also third in 2012, could also make history in medal terms and would surpass Bolt should he win and the Jamaican fail to win a medal.

1896 to 2012

USA dominated the first six Olympics, up to World War I, winning five golds, five silvers and two bronzes.

Thomas Burke took the inaugural title in Athens in 1896 in a pedestrian 12.0.

The quickest of those first half dozen Olympics was the one non-American winner. Reggie Walker of South Africa won the 1908 title in London in 10.7.

The only athlete to win more than one medal in this period was Archie Hahn, who won gold in 1904 and 1906.

USA continued their supremacy between 1920 and 1936 winning three of the five titles between the two world wars. Britain’s Harold Abrahams won the 1924 title while Canadian Percy Williams won in 1928 from Jack London of Great Britain in 1928.

The best known winner though was Jesse Owens who famously won in Berlin in 1936 in a windy 10.3. In 1932 Eddie Tolan was credited with a legal 10.38 very narrowly from Ralph Metcalfe, who went on to be second to Owens USA won the title the three Games after the War, as well as the two before though no one athlete dominated and the times were relatively modest.

Germany’s bullet-starting Armin Hary took the 1960 title in Rome though it was four years later when the Olympic record was given some respectability.

On the cinders of Tokyo, Bob Hayes powered to a superb 10.06 to win gold by two metres.

Thanks to the altitude of Mexico, Jim Hines ran the first sub-10 in the Olympics with a 9.95. For three consecutive Olympics, the gold then escaped USA’s clutches. The Soviet Union’s Valeriy Borzov easily defeated the Americans in 1972 and then Hasely Crawford won the Caribbean’s first gold in 1976.

USA were absent in 1980 when Britain’s Allan Wells won but regained supremacy in 1984 as Carl Lewis won by a huge two metre margin in 9.99 and he retained his title in 1988 after Ben Johnson’s infamous drugs disqualification.

Britain won their third title in 1992 with Linford Christie clearly winning in 1992 in 9.96. Christie false-started in 1996, but wouldn’t have been a factor anyway as Donovan Bailey won in a world record 9.84 to win Canada’s second title.

Before Bolt continued America’s frustration, Maurice Greene and Justin Gatlin won fast races in 2000 and 2004.

British successes

The first British winner was Harold Abrahams in Paris in 1924 which was featured in the Oscar-winning film, Chariots of Fire. Abrahams had only been a quarter-finalist in both sprints in 1920 but showed improvement in 1923 when he was coached by Sam Mussabini, who had coached Reggie Walker to gold in 1908. He was also a top class long jumper and before the Games he jumped 7.38m which was to last as an English record for over 30 years.

Before the Games, 1920 champion Charlie Paddick was favourite after running 110 yards (longer than 100m) in a world record 10.2. During the Games Abrahams was dominant though. He equalled the Olympic record in the quarter-finals and semi-finals as he improved to 10.6. In the final, Abrahams was level with his American opponents at halfway but moved clear on the second half to again run 10.6 and win by around two feet from Jackson Scholz. Abrahams finished last in the 200m final and never reached the level of his 100m victory ever again.

Allan Wells won a boycott-affected Moscow Olympics in 1980. The USA were absent and Cuba’s Silvio Leonard was favourite but Wells, who had a best of just 10.9 in 1976 when he began focusing on sprinting, won his quarter-final in 10.11. In the final, curiously Wells was drawn in lane one and Leonard in lane eight and there was the little between the two contenders with Wells’ dip giving him victory by inches.

He proved his worth against the Americans the following year as he won the IAAF Golden Sprints. Linford Christie was also a late starter and after winning silver in 1988, he almost thought about retiring after finishing fourth in the 1991 World Championships despite running 9.92.

In 1992, Christie’s case was made easier when a virus-affected world and Olympic champion Carl Lewis could only finish sixth in the US trials. Former world record-holder Leroy Burrell had beaten Christie 10 times in a row until Christie beat him narrowly with a 10.07 quarter final. Burrell beat Christie in the semi-final with a 9.97 to 10.00. In the final though Burrell was never a factor after a false start and Christie eased away to victory to win in 9.96 and take over from Wells as the oldest winner at 32.

Most memorable Olympic 100m: Seoul 1988

In the 1987 World Championships, bullet-starting Ben Johnson stunned Olympic champion Carl Lewis to win in a world record 9.83 as Lewis equalled the previous record of 9.93 but was a full metre back.

Johnson had injuries early in 1988 and wasn’t in great form prior to the Olympics and Lewis caught him easily in Zurich to win in 9.93, with Johnson third in 10.00.

In the Games, Lewis was faster in all three qualifying rounds with 10.14, 9.99 and 9.97. After prematurely easing down in his his quarter-final, Johnson only got through in third as a fastest loser but won his semi-final in 10.03.

Lewis was favourite for the final; despite what had happened in Rome, but his opponent got a perfect start and was well clear after 30 metres and was officially timed at 3.81 to Lewis’s 3.89. Now the American was at the stage of the race he would usually start closing the gap but despite now at full speed himself, the deficit actually grew.

At 60 metres, Johnson had almost doubled his lead to 0.14 of a second as he timed 6.37 to Lewis’s 6.51 and he went further away through 80 metres, timing 8.06 to his rival’s 8.23.

Lewis looked across at 80 metres, and knowing the gap was nearer two than a single metre, he was clearly running for second. He did though finally make some inway between 80m and 90m and took back 0.04 of a second but made no impression in the last 10 metres and Johnson crossed the line, staring across at Lewis with his right arm thrust into the sky.

The clock showed a sensational world record of 9.79 and Lewis ran his fastest ever time of 9.92 but looked devastated.

Johnson was initially received as a hero back in Canada until his drugs test revealed steroids in his sample. Johnson was adamant that a drink had been tampered with, seemingly by an unauthorised American who had been in the testing area.

Johnson lost his gold medal and Olympic title and later admitting that he had taken drugs throughout his career, though still insisting he had been framed in Seoul, he lost his earlier world title and world record.

Lewis’s time of 9.92 was eventually regarded as the world record.

» Check out editions of Athletics Weekly magazine from September 24, 2015, for more from our ‘Countdown to Rio’ series

» For the full Olympic history: Men’s 100m feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the September 24, 2015, edition of AW magazine