On Sunday, the final day of the 2004 Olympic Trials, three men emerged as long-shot candidates to be among the all-time greatest U.S. runners.
(Notice all the qualifying terms?)
Training partners Shawn Crawford and Justin Gatlin each have a great chance to win gold in the 100 and 200 meters. One could get lucky and complete the double and pick up another gold in the 4 x 100. That would be something.
And then there's Alan Webb, who has conquered some of the world's best this summer. In toying with the field in the 1,500, he showed he's got a lot left in his tank for the Olympics. Webb is only 21; and if he can snag a medal in Athens -- and he can -- he's got a lot of time to become one of the all-time greats.
Coming soon: the greatest female American runners ever.
10. Lee Evans
Ranked No. 1 in the world in the 400 meters for four years (1966-68 and 1970), Evans set a world record of 44 flat in the 1968 Olympic Trials and then broke his own mark by running 43.86 in Mexico City. That's still the fifth-fastest time ever run in the event (though it comes with an "A" asterisk, which stands for "altitude"). He also was on the relay team that set the world record in the 4 x 400 relay in 1966 -- the first team to break three minutes.
9. Renaldo Nehemiah
Nehemiah became the first 110-meter high hurdler to break 13 seconds, and attained the No. 1 ranking in the world four straight years (1978-81). In 1979, he broke the existing world record by .05 seconds, running 13.16; he lowered his mark, in 1981, to 12.93 seconds, .11 seconds ahead of his closest rival, Greg Foster. His record stood for eight years. (The world record today is 12.91.)
Nehemiah also set a slew of indoor world records. Deprived of a likely Olympic gold medal by the 1980 boycott, Nehemiah played three years as a wide receiver for the 49ers, then returned to track in 1986, achieving a world top-10 ranking for four more years.
8. Steve Prefontaine
The most popular American runner of all time was also the best distance runner, even though he died in a car crash in 1975 at the age of 24. Although he had probably not reached his full potential, he was ranked in the top 10 in the world at 5000 meters from 1971 to 1975.
Prefontaine won the NCAA championship in the 3-mile run four times in a row, an unprecedented accomplishment. At the 1972 Olympics, Pre had a good chance to win the 5000, but he faltered in the final mile and finished fourth. At the time of his death, he held American records at the 2K, 3K, 5K, 10K, 2-mile, 3-mile, and 6-mile distances; he had even run a mile in 3:54.6, an excellent time for a distance runner. In one four-way track meet in Eugene in 1973, he ran a 3:56 mile and followed it with a 13:06 3-mile an hour later, an incredible achievement.
Pre was also a great cross-country runner, winning the NCAA championship three times.
7. Maurice Greene
Greene set the world record in the 100 in 1999, running 9.79, a mark topped by Tim Montgomery's 9.78 in 2002. But Greene, who won the 100 in the Olympic trials earlier this month with a blazing 9.91, has an excellent chance to become the first back-to-back Olympic 100 winner since Carl Lewis, who won gold in Los Angeles and Seoul.
Greene is Lewis' equal in other ways. He won the world championship three straight times -- in 1997, 1999 and 2001. He achieved the 100/200 double in 1999.
Greene, who's pushing 30 -- ancient by sprinting standards -- has run sub-10 100's a record 47 times, and it doesn't look like he's lost a step since, as a 20-year-old, he beat Lewis in the 1995 Texas Relays.
6. Michael Johnson
Johnson's unprecedented 200/400 double in the 1996 Games was a great enough achievement to land him on this list. But the key to his greatness was that the double was not unusual -- for him. Johnson's the world-record holder in both events -- he shattered the 200 mark, running a 19.32 while winning gold in Atlanta in '96, and set the 400 standard of 43.18 in winning the 1999 world championship. He won the 400 gold again in Sydney, becoming the first man ever to win back-to-back Olympic titles in that event. He was also a four-time world champ in the 400 (1993, 1995, 1997, 1999), and two-time world champ in the 200 (1991 and 1995).
Johnson's streak of 58 straight wins in 400-meter finals -- a string that covered five years -- is one of the greatest in track history.
5. Bob Hayes
In 1963, "Bullet Bob" set world records of 9.1 in the 100-yard dash and 20.5 in the 200-meter dash. He came into the 1964 Olympics with a streak of 48 consecutive finals victories in the 100 yards and 100 meters, and extended it by crushing the field. He won the gold by a two-meter margin in the 100 while tying the world record of 10.06 seconds. At Tokyo he also ran an incredible 8.6 anchor leg in the 400-meter relay (leading his team to a gold and another world-record time), in a performance the L.A. Times called "the most astonishing sprint of all time."
Hayes was ranked No. 1 in the world at 100 meters three years in a row, and might have been the greatest of all time had he not become an All-Pro wide receiver with the Dallas Cowboys.
4. Jim Ryun
In 1966, Ryun set a world record in the mile of 3:51.3 (shattering the previous mark by 2.3 seconds), and was SI's Sportsman of the Year. The following year, he lowered his record to 3:51.1. In the 1968 Olympics, he won a silver in the 1,500 meters. Ryun also held world records in the 880 (1:44.9) and 1500 meters. Even at two miles, Ryun could run with the world's best, displaying a middle-distance versatility rarely seen.
As a high schooler, Ryun ran a mile in 3:55.3, setting a record that stood for nearly 40 years (Alan Webb broke it three years ago). In his record-breaking race, he defeated Peter Snell, the 1960 gold medalist.
Running on tracks vastly inferior to those of today, he ran times that would still be world class. Not many athletes who peaked nearly 40 years ago can make that claim.
3. Jesse Owens
On May 25, 1935, at the Big Ten championships, Owens had the greatest single day (or, more accurately, 45 minutes) in men's track history, He tied the world record of 9.4 in the 100-yard dash, set a world record with a 20.3 second 220-yard dash, set another world mark in running the 220 low hurdles in 22.6, and also long jumped 26-8 1/4, a mark that lasted 25 years.
But as you know, he wasn't done. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics came Owens' greatest accomplishment: he made Hitler cringe as he won four gold medals. He tied the world record of 10.3 in the 100 meters, won the 200 meters and long jump while setting Olympic marks, and was on the gold medal 4 x 100 relay team, which also set a world record.
In 1950, Owens was voted, by a large margin, the greatest track and field star for the first half of the century.
2. Carl Lewis
Lewis became the world's fastest sprinter in 1981, won four gold medals in the 1984 games (equaling Jesse Owens' feat), and set a world record in the 100 while winning gold in Seoul in 1988 (he had finished second to the subsequently DQed Ben Johnson).
A full decade after he first reached the top, he won the world championship in the 100 in 1991, setting a new world record of 9.86. "The best race of my life," Lewis said. "The best technique, the fastest. And I did it at 30."
Lewis made five Olympic teams (1980, 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996), won a total of five Olympic golds in the sprints (and four more in the long jump). His longevity, and his ability to stay on top year after year and still peak at the Olympics made for a truly remarkable career.
1. Edwin Moses
Moses revolutionized the 400-meter hurdles, using his long stride and superior leg strength to cut down the normal number of steps between hurdles from 14 to 13, which required alternating his takeoff leg. His winning streak of 107 straight 400-meter hurdle finals over the course of almost 10 years will probably never be broken.
Moses was a 20-year-old unknown when he won gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, setting a new world record by .18 seconds and finishing an extraordinary (and unprecedented) 1.05 seconds ahead of silver medalist Mike Shine. At the 1984 Games he again won gold, again setting a world record (47.02). In 1987, at age 32, he won the world championship, and managed to take the bronze in the 1988 Seoul Games at the relatively old age of 33.
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