A look at the men’s 200m as Steve Smythe reflects on the history of events at the Olympics

English-speaking athletes have dominated the half-lap event winning 22 of the 26 titles and 68 of the 78 medals.

USA has been the top nation with 17 gold medals.

Nine of the champions have also won at the Games at 100m to complete a sprint double.

Usain Bolt is surprisingly the only athlete to win two 200m golds and he will become the first ever triple medallist should he succeed in Rio.

1900 to 2012

The event wasn’t held in the first Olympics in 1896 and Walter Tewkesbury was the first ever champion in 1900. Archie Hahn’s 21.6 victory time in 1904 wasn’t beaten in a final until Eddie Tolan ran 21.12 in 1932. Hahn’s was unusual because his three opponents false started and were each moved back as per the rules of the time. It should have been two metres but there was only room for one.

Jesse Owens was the first to break 21 seconds in the Olympics when he won in Berlin in 1936 in 20.7. Bobby Morrow was credited with a 20.6 in 1956, though it was later revealed as 20.75 on automatic timing.

Four years later, Livio Berruti delighted the Rome audience with a victory announced as equalling the world record of 20.5, though it was 20.62 on automatic timing. That marked the first ever European gold medal, and indeed the first time the title hadn’t gone to an American or Canadian.

America regained supremacy and the record through Henry Carr’s 20.36 in Tokyo in 1964 and then Tommie Smith’s world record 19.83 at altitude in Mexico in 1968. Smith trailed team-mate John Carlos for 150m but finished sensationally and set the time despite easing down in the final 10 metres with both arms wide. While his run was noteworthy, Smith made far more headlines at the medal ceremony as he and Carlos raised a black-gloved hand in a black power salute.

USA couldn’t hold their dominance though. Soviet Union’s Valeriy Borzov won in 1972 and then Jamaican Don Quarrie took gold in 1976. The boycott kept the USA away from Moscow in 1980 though world record-holder Pietro Mennea of Italy would probably have won anyway.

Carl Lewis, who famously won four golds in 1984, brought USA back to the top in Los Angeles and improved the Olympic record in 19.80 in easily taking gold.

Lewis was even faster in Seoul in 1980 but was surprisingly beaten by his team-mate Joe DeLoach who ran the race of his life to win in 19.75.

In Barcelona in 1992, Michael Johnson was a big favourite but due to food poisoning he didn’t even make the final but gold still went to the USA through Mike Marsh. Marsh only ran 20.01 in the final, after having eased back in his semi final when running an Olympic record 19.73 and missed the world record by just 0.01 of a second. He was the third successive athlete to win 200m gold, who was coached by Joe Tellez.

Johnson was healthy in Atlanta in 1996 and smashed the world record with a remarkable 19.32. In second, Namibia’s Frankie Fredericks won his second silver medal to go second all-time with his 19.68.

America were totally out of the medals in Sydney in 2000 when Kostas Kederis won and then was involved in a strange incident where just before Athens in 2004 he missed a drugs test but claimed it was because of a motorbike accident, which was later proved to be fabricated and he received a drugs ban.

In Greece, Shawn Crawford led an USA clean-sweep with a fast 19.79 but the last two Olympics have been dominated by Bolt and Jamaica. Bolt won in Beijing in 2008 in a world record 19.30, beating Crawford by an astonishing 0.66 of a second and he retained his title in London in a similar 19.32 leading a Jamaican clean sweep though Yohan Blake was only a metre back in 19.44.

Most memorable Olympic 200m: Moscow 1980

Allan Wells had won the 100m in Moscow by the narrowest of margins but many thought his chance of success was greater in the 200m, the distance in which he had won the 1978 Commonwealth Games in a windy 20.12.

Italian Pietro Mennea, who had been third in 1972 and fourth in 1976, surprised many by setting a world record in winning the World Student Games in Mexico in 1979. However many put his 19.72 clocking down to the high altitude. That year, Wells had beaten him in front of a home crowd in Turin to win the European Cup and Mennea was keen to gain his revenge in Russia. Wells showed nothing in his first round heat and was only 25th fastest with 21.57. In the quarter-finals, the Scotsman stretched out to win his heat in 20.59 for the fastest time though Mennea’s 20.60 which won the final heat, was the second quickest.

In the semi-finals the following day, Wells decided to conserve energy for the final being held less than two hours later and was only fourth in 20.75. There was no seeding in 1980 and the quickest from the semis, 100m silver medallist Silvio Leonard, was drawn in lane one for the final. Defending champion Don Quarrie in lane four, Wells in seven and Mennea in eight had far better draws.

Wells got a blistering start and quickly made up the stagger on the Italian and was two metres up as he hit the straight with little between Leonard, Quarrie and Mennea. At 150m, Mennea eased away from the other two and began to close.

Wells knew he was going to come and felt he eased back to save something for the finish. Ten metres out, the Italian was level then inched ahead. Wells had tightened up but came back on the line with the dip that had won him the 100m but the response was too late. Mennea, who raised his arms in triumph, won in 20.19 from Wells’ 20.21 for the smallest ever winning margin. Quarrie (20.29) just beat Leonard (20.31), who had probably overdone his first 100m on the tight bend, for the bronze.

British successes

While Britain has won three gold medals at the shorter sprint, they have failed to win a 200m title but only the USA have gained more total medals.

Britain gained a silver in the very first final in 1900. Norman Pritchard was Indian-born and returned to India after the Games where he later became secretary of the Indian Football Association. He later moved to the USA where he became a film actor and appeared in some major films with the day’s big stars such as Ciara Bow and Ronald Colman.

Britain won three successive bronzes in 1912, 1920 and 1924. In the latter, 400m champion Eric Liddell finishing ahead of 100m champion Harold Abrahams. Walter Rangeley won a silver in 1928 just 0.1 of a second behind Canada’s Percy Williams but Britain then had to wait 52 years and Wells for their next medal.

The final medal came in 2000. Many expected the race to be between World champion Maurice Greene and Olympic champion Michael Johnson and the pair clashed in the US Olympic trials but both succumbed to injury in a race won impressively by John Capel in 19.85.

In Sydney, Greene won the 100m and Johnson the 400m but was absent from the 200m, making Capel the favourite after he won his semi-final. However, he messed up his start in the final, twitching and then rocking back as everyone else went forward and finishing last.

Greece’s Kostas Kederis, then a virtual unknown, came through strongly to pip Darren Campbell by 0.05 with a winning time of 20.09. Kederis became the first Greek male runner to win gold for 104 years. The previous Greek winner had been Spyridon Louis in the 1896 marathon.

» 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 200m feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the October 8, 2015, edition of AW magazine