Lee Rowley has looked back at the recent history of the Olympic 100m final and has noted something amiss

The final of the men’s 100m at the London 2012 Olympics was arguably the greatest line-up of sprinting talent ever to be amassed and included the five fastest men in history.

All eight competitors were consistent at producing performances well under 10 seconds and, if not for the Jamaican Asafa Powell pulling up in fifth some 30 metres from the finishing line, for the first time ever all eight starters would have smashed through the coveted 10-second barrier.

The sprinting superpowers of Jamaica and USA each paraded a trio of sprinters, with a Dutchman and a Trinidadian making up the final places. While lane one was purposefully left empty for the straight sprints, former world record-holder Powell, who qualified as a fastest loser from the first semi-final, occupied lane three – in effect, the second lane.

Despite leaving the blocks well and looking in contention to win a medal, he began to look uncomfortable and faded throughout the middle part of the race before easing down with an injury to his groin.

Arguably capable of clocking a 9.80 to 9.90 performance from his position in fifth, he eventually sauntered over the finishing line in a disappointing 11.99. At the time, this was the only real blemish to the greatest 100m race in history and the only occasion when the first seven finishers have run under 10 seconds.

But just what is it about that second lane? Four years earlier in Beijing, Usain Bolt took his first Olympic 100m title and all eight of the finalists managed to cover the distance without any serious misfortune. In the modern history of the race, though, this has become somewhat of a rarity and has only happened twice since 1984, the other time being the 1992 Barcelona final where the great Linford Christie streaked to victory.

“Which of the fastest men in the world will get the second lane as our eyes turn to Brazil later this year?”

Looking back to Athens in 2004, Ghanaian Aziz Zakari pulled up at about the 30-metre mark, grasping at his hamstring and failing to finish. Bizarrely, an almost identical incident occurred in the Olympic final in Sydney four years earlier when he ended up lying on the track in agony; same athlete, same injury, same lane!

In Atlanta in 1996 all of the athletes that started the race crossed the finishing line with one notable absence. Watching from the side of the track was the reigning Olympic champion, Linford Christie. He was judged to have twice false started and, despite considerable protest, was inevitably disqualified, leaving the second lane empty.

The so-called “dirtiest race in history”, the Seoul 1988 final has been beset with its fair share of controversy but, despite the later drugs scandals which racked the event, all but one of the athletes that took to their starting blocks managed to finish the race. This time it was Jamaican Ray Stewart who eased up after 60 metres, throwing his head back and staggering over the finish line in last place, from no other lane than lane two.

Since British sprinter Mike McFarlane’s fifth-place in Los Angeles in 1984 only two athletes have completed the whole 100m final from the second lane without incident. Ray Stewart made the Jamaican team again and in Barcelona became the first athlete to compete in three successive Olympic 100m finals. In attempting to make up for the disappointment of Seoul, he finished a rather lacklustre seventh.

The other was the eighth-place finisher in Beijing, American Darvis Patton. In seven Olympic 100m finals, seventh place is the best performance from the second lane.

In fact, since 1972 when, funnily enough, Soviet athlete Valeriy Borzov took the Olympic gold from lane two at the Munich Games, the only injuries and disqualifications (discounting later drug disqualifications which affected a number of athletes) in the Olympic 100m finals have come from the second lane. Every other lane has a 100% completion record.

So, which of the fastest men in the world will get the second lane as our eyes turn to Brazil later this year? Could the 100m final be the first time we ever see all eight athletes break the sub-10 second barrier, or will the curse of the second lane awaken again and scupper what promises to be one of the greatest 100m races in history?

» Lee Rowley is a PhD sports engineering research student at Sheffield Hallam University