I confess that at any juncture, and with the litany of talent witnessed over the past 50 years, any pundit would regrettably omit one or two or even a dozen female 100m greats. Who is the greatest short sprinter of all time? Which athlete would be most equipped to win a series of races against equals? Would she win under any condition in an ultimate match-up against the most fearsome sprint field ever? That question cannot be answered adequately because eras, equipment, altitude, track condition, nutrition, and technology dictate how well each ‘greatest or best’ measures up against the competition.
In this analysis, I take a look at some of the greatest sprinters who ever competed and assess their historical significance. At one point or another, one of these greats has either been a world record holder, World champion or an Olympic champion or has held all three distinctions at one point or another. Greatness for some of these titans lies in their competitive longevity, spanning decades and thus include multiple Number One rankings.
This complicated field includes former World and Olympic runner up Merlene Ottey, who, in her banner years (1979 to 2000), competed for her native Jamaica, but later switched allegiance to her adopted country, Slovenia; former Olympic champion and world record holder American Evelyn Ashford-Washington, who has a best time of 10.76secs; Ashford’s compatriot, Florence Griffith-Joyner, the 1988 Olympic champion and still world record holder of the event with a commanding 10.49 run. Ranked number one then, Griffith Joyner’s year of heroics has catapulted her into a pantheon reserved for greats. Fellow American Carmelita Jeter’s last few seasons have catapulted her into a league that some of the best can only dream of. The 2011 World champion is the second fastest woman of all time at 10.64; two time American Olympic champion (1992 and 1996) and controversial 1993 World champion, Gail Devers is included in this high-quality field. Devers’ best time in the event stands at 10.82; Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown (VCB) is a redoubtable competitor. VCB has won gold, silver and bronze medals at the Worlds, in addition to being an Olympic silver medal winner; former world record holder and the 1983 World champion Marlies Goehr, a three-time European champion and former world record holder at 10.88secs. Goehr was ranked among the fastest women in the world for 12 straight years; and finally, former world record holder at 11.15, winner of bronze medals at the European Championships and Olympics, Poland’s Irina Szewinska.
A few honorable mentions are in order, too. Olympic champion and former World champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is on her way to greatness and deserves a nod. Renate Stetcher, the 1972 Olympic champion and former record holder, despite allegations regarding the East German track program during that country’s heyday at the top of the sport; Australia’s Raelene Boyle, a two-time Commonwealth champion and 1972 Olympic silver medalist; and ‘La Gazelle’ Wilma Rudolph, who put American women sprinters in the spotlight with her Olympic title in Rome in 1960. Marion Jones is not considered because of the erasure of her records from official listings after her drug-use confession.
And so, the winner is Merlene Ottey. Almost 20 years ago, Ms. Ottey ran 10.74secs toward the end of an injury-plagued season. According to her, the injury frustrated her so much that she ‘decided to run through it’, and with that came her personal best, which at the time placed her at number three on the all-time list. At one point in her career, she won 57 consecutive 100m races – an unparalleled feat. At her illustrious best, Ashford-Washington follows Ottey home. Ms. Ashford-Washington was the consummate competitor: she had a great start and a wonderful finish. Her tantalizing battles with the East Germans provided sparks to any track and field competition.
The powerful Carmelita Jeter would finish third. Jeter’s best asset is her absolute finish, which would clip Florence Griffith Joyner for the final podium position. Griffith Joyner had one great summer back in 1988, but I am not convinced that that was enough history to name her as perhaps the greatest ever. She retired suddenly early in 1989 and her performances prior to 1988 were relatively standard. In contrast, Campbell-Brown, the current Jamaican champion, is a giant killer. She has proven time and again that she cannot be counted out. She is gutsier than almost any other competitor worth noting; she is brilliance at its best.
Gail Devers might finish sixth in this tough field. She is undoubtedly one of the greatest starts in history and is known for her lean at the tape, a lean which denied Merlene Ottey gold at the 1993 Worlds and again at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. East Germany’s Marlies Goehr would finish well ahead of Poland’s Irina Szewinska, considered one of the greatest athletes of all time.
At the 1993 World Championships Merlene Ottey ran 10.83 to win the silver medal. That time would have won her the gold in 2011 World Championships – almost 20 years later.
NEXT: The Men’s 200m
READER COMMENTS: I Say Linford Christie, Not Ben Johnson
Your Greatest Ever men’s 100m story caught my eye. It’s a great subject and the story is good. However, for obvious reasons, I disagree with the inclusion of Ben Johnson. In his stead, I’d be tempted to put Linford Christie since he was a three-time Olympic finalist, with silver and gold in 1988 and 1992. Remarkably, he held the World, Olympic, European and Commonwealth titles all at the same time.
Off-Target about Bolt’s Start
The description of Bolt as a slow starter is off target. He led from start to finish in Berlin 2009, with a 60m time better than Greene’s world indoor record of 6.39secs for the same distance. His first 60m in Beijing was in the same range with only 2008 NCAA 60m champion Richard Thompson ahead of him in the early going. In that season, Thompson was joint world leader with Nigeria’s Olusoji Fasuba in the indoor 60m at 6.51secs.
He may be a slow starter sometimes, but the Bejing/Berlin Bolt is as good from the blocks as the very best. –Hubert Lawrence