Two decades of the World's Fastest Men
Their races and their stories: the world-record holders in the men's 100-meter dash
ESPN.com has traced the arc of the world records in the 100 meters over the past two decades and the sprinters who set them: the world's fastest men. Most still enjoy vivid memories of the day they touched greatness. Some have taken the title and etched a comfortable life for themselves. Others have been less fortunate. Sadly, a few have been unceremoniously stripped of the title, their names erased from the record books. Here are their stories.
9.79 seconds: BEN JOHNSON, Sept. 24, 1988
Site: Seoul, Olympics
Note: WR disallowed after positive drug test. His previous WR of 9.83, set in Rome during the 1987 season, was also rescinded.
In his own words:
"I just react to the gun and just run like hell. Charlie [Francis, his coach] came to me and goes, 'I want you to come out of the blocks nice and fast and smooth.' I said, 'No, I'm just gonna get out and pump it.' Charlie said, 'Well, are you sure?' I said, 'Yeah.' So I did a practice start and came out very slowly. And I mark off the 40-meter mark where I am going to change the gear. I went back. I was in behind the blocks, off the field and the guy goes, 'Runners take your mark.' Some guy in the stands goes, 'Let's go, Carl Lewis.' And I say in my mind, 'Watch this one.'
"I'm in the blocks and I just roll out and reach 40 meters and I change gears. I just get out of the blocks and accelerate and pump my arms six times, eight times faster than my leg speed and get that gap in between and that was the race. I knew it was gone. I knew from the blocks and how I reacted that it was done."
Canadian speed demon Ben Johnson emerged as sport's first big drug cheat long before the media began its infatuation with steroids, the BALCO scandal and the federal hullabaloo over baseball megastars Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. The East German state-run doping system had been in place for years, and rumors persisted of individual athletes' dabbling in drugs, including some top American track athletes. But in some circles, Johnson was cast as the worst thing since Satan -- a stuttering knucklehead who brought disgrace upon the "pristine" world of Olympic sport.
Today, Johnson, 47, is by all accounts healthy and -- despite critics and deletions to the record books -- still considers himself the world's fastest man. Time and history are slowly ameliorating the bad-guy image he took with him when he left Seoul in disgrace. It could be argued that he pioneered a generation of drug-using athletes who are morally indistinguishable from one another, and from Johnson himself.
"Maybe to other people, my life changed after the record; but for me, I was the same Ben Johnson," he says during a recent interview in Toronto. "The same from 30 years ago. Even today, I am the same person. I haven't changed."
He does not look back with bitterness. He doesn't complain about the lost gold medal, the world record and the millions that didn't come his way. Twenty-one years after it happened, he appears to have fully recovered from the public embarrassment in Seoul, where Olympic officials seized his gold medal in his room and he hustled back to Canada in ignominy.
"No, that wasn't painful,'' he says in a thick Jamaican accent. "Back then, I just take it in stride and just worry about my family. Charlie [Francis] said, 'Well, the s--- is gonna hit the fan back home.' I said, 'Whatever comes my way, I'll deal with it.'"
Two decades later, though, it hurts that people don't appreciate his true speed. "At the time, this is first time the world sees 9.79 run," he says. "Testing positive there and everybody says it is because of drugs. But I don't think that was the case. I think it was more than that. I think people forget about the genetics and the hard training for all the years."
9.86 seconds: CARL LEWIS, Aug. 25, 1991
Site: Tokyo, World Championships
Note: Also credited with WR 9.92 as a result of Johnson's disqualification in Seoul.
In his own words (to reporters after the race):
"I felt great at 60 meters and I said, 'I've got a shot.' I didn't feel confident, but I knew I had a shot. I felt really good at 80 meters and said, 'I've got a great shot.' When I cleared everyone except Leroy [Burrell] at 90 meters, I said, 'Hey, I can win this.' I knew Leroy was two lanes over, and that's why I looked over. I felt I was really rolling at that time There's no way I could have done it without Leroy. He ran a 9.88. No humpty can run a 9.88, and I have to race against him in practice every day. I had to run the best race of my life to beat him, and it was close. If I had run 1 percent less than the best I've ever run, I would have lost."
Thanks to Carl Lewis and his training partner, Leroy Burrell, former Houston-based coach Tom Tellez enjoyed a monopoly on the world's fastest man title for almost a decade. Both held the sprint title on two separate occasions, and Lewis would further enhance his reputation with nine Olympic gold medals.
"I never talked about world records when we were training," Tellez says. "You can never predict a world record. I don't think you can, especially in Olympic competition or a big competition. You're just trying to win. And you can't run fast all the time, every week. The conditions and everything have to be right. Actually, I thought that Leroy was more ready to break the world record in Tokyo in '91 than Carl was, because Leroy had been beating him all summer.
"But in Carl's case, we were just interested in the Olympic Games; and in between, we were not really mentally and physically [as prepared]. We competed and trained, but putting it together always came at the Olympic Games. That is when we wanted to do our best."
Ironically, with the exception of Lewis' earning the record in Seoul after Ben Johnson's positive drug test, the world records for Tellez's sprinters didn't come at the Olympics. Burrell broke the record in New York and Lausanne, Switzerland.
What separated Lewis from the rest is that, like the late Jesse Owens, he also excelled in the long jump, retiring in 1996 as perhaps the most consistent ever in that event.
"I knew when he was jumping over 28 feet a lot of times that he was ready to do something if the conditions arose," Tellez recalls. "But what happens in the 100, you get in a groove, develop the rhythm of the race and a certain confidence. When all the conditions are right, then world records are possible."
9.85 seconds: LEROY BURRELL, July 6, 1994
Site: Lausanne, Switzerland, IAAF Grand Prix
Note: Also ran a WR 9.90 in New York on June 14, 1991.
In his own words:
"It was just a very, very good day to run. It was really warm in Switzerland. The stadium was slightly at altitude, but not so much that it would hinder a record performance. There was no wind that day. I knew I was going to run really fast. So when the gun went off, I just let my training and work I'd been doing all year take care of itself. A lot of people don't remember, but I ran 9.84 windy earlier that year in April. I was ready to run.
"I didn't compete early in that European season, and I remember picking up the paper every morning and seeing where Dennis Mitchell was running really well. I remember thinking, 'Man, I'm going to Lausanne and knock those guys off.' So the gun just goes off, and a couple guys got their normal start. I wasn't worried about that, because I knew that I was running the best I had ever run. And I knew I had enough that if they were ahead of me slightly, that I would be able to catch up and pull away. That is exactly what happened. And during the race, I just remember executing really well. Everything felt great. I remember I could have kept running if I needed to. And so when I crossed the line, I remember looking up and seeing the scoreboard. I was like, 'OK, there it is.' I knew I was going to run really fast anyway, so it was confirmation of what I had done all year."
If he could rewrite history, Leroy Burrell would gladly swap a world record -- even his two world's fastest man titles -- for an Olympic gold medal. Burrell, now the head track coach at the University of Houston, has a silver medal from the World Championships and Olympic gold from the 4 x 100-meter relay. Yet despite his fastest man titles, he never finished better than fifth in the Olympic 100 meters. So he's not sold on the value of being the world's fastest man, believing it to be little more than a media infatuation.
"I don't think athletes sit around [saying], 'Well, I am the world's fastest man,'" Burrell says.
He obviously never chatted much with Ben Johnson or others who owned and enjoyed the title through the years. To Burrell, it was simply about getting better and running faster. And if he did that, just maybe it would lead to a time for the ages.
"For me, I ran 9.94 the summer of my junior year in college,'' Burrell recalls. "If getting better meant breaking a world record, then so be it. So I ended up running 9.91 my first year out [of college] and broke the world record. I never really looked at it as the world's fastest. I looked at it as I broke the world record. That is the standard out there. That is my PR. And I'm going to try and do it again. Fortunately, I was able to."
9.84 seconds: DONOVAN BAILEY, July 27, 1996
Country: Canada (born in Jamaica)
Site: Atlanta, Olympics
In his own words:
"If you talk to my coach [Dan Pfaff], it was one of worst I ran, because I didn't put it together at all. Linford [Christie] false-started twice and Ato Boldon false-started once. So I was cooling down. That is a lot of time to stay focused, really.
"I didn't get in my set properly, so I was the last guy out of the blocks. I just dug down and realized I had to stay as relaxed as possible until I get in my drive phase. No one has my top-end speed, even to this day. So yeah, I realized if Frankie [Fredericks] and Ato were within snatching distance, then I would have the race won. And I knew that at 70 meters. I knew I had the race, but I didn't think I ran that fast, because technically it was such a bad race."
Some sprinters crash the party and break records right out of the blocks, as Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin did. Others, such as Donovan Bailey, arrive on the scene late. Bailey was 23 by the time he quit his day job and took up the sport on a full-time basis.
"My coach, Dan Pfaff, recognized that I had the ability to go faster than anyone before me," Bailey says. "It became a goal then. Growing up, listen, I played basketball in college. I wanted to be Michael Jordan. I'm serious. I still play basketball to this day. I played basketball in high school and college. So I started track and field in high school. I was just as good as the kids there.
"Later, after I finished college, I was working in the financial industry in Toronto and it wasn't a big deal. Track and field was sort of like a weekend happening. When I started working at it, focusing on it, it was just like what [Usain] Bolt is going through now. He screwed around for a couple years and now he's demolishing records. I sort of went through the same thing."
Like Bolt, Bailey grew up in Jamaica before his family moved to Canada when he was 12. The Caribbean island has long been a hotbed of great sprinters, but it really took off with the emergence of Ben Johnson. Most recently, Bolt and Asafa Powell have each broken the world record twice in the 100 meters.
Bailey offers the analogy between Jamaica's sprinters and the Dominican Republic's baseball stars.
"First, it is a climate or temperature thing," Bailey says. "It is also natural [food] stuff. What we North Americans think of as organic food and meats -- that is normal for them. You got water coming out of the sea. Nothing is mass-produced. [It's] exercise, food and the fact there is a good grassroots program, kind of like football and basketball in the United States or hockey in Canada. In Jamaica, it is the easiest sport. You got a pair of shoes or you run in bare feet."
9.79 seconds: MAURICE GREENE, June 16, 1999
Site: Athens, Greece, IAAF Grand Prix
In his own words:
"I was going to Athens to run the 200 meters. I was like, 'Man, I want to be in this 100-meter race because something is gonna happen.' I knew the track was fast. I won the year before there at the World Championships in 9.87, but I knew I could run faster. So the night before, my manager [Emanuel Hudson] calls and says, 'It's on, you're in the race.'
"I can recall what happened just like it was yesterday. The gun went off and I got a pretty good start. It was very powerful and I was like, 'Take your time. Take your time. Now you're coming up, and now accelerate.' And now I am at about 70 meters and like, 'Go for it now.' That is all it is. I knew I was ahead of everyone, but I didn't know how fast I was actually running. I didn't know I was on that pace. And once I finished, I looked [at the time] and then I went, 'Oh, I was running.'"
To paraphrase Maurice Greene, the 100-meter world-record holder is the baddest man in the ring.
"In boxing, you have middleweight titles and other weight classes, but there is always something about the heavyweight championship and the heavyweight champion of the world," says Greene, now the owner of a sports entertainment company. "That is the same thing in track and field. Yeah, you have a lot of other events, but the biggest event in track and field is the 100 meters. It is like the heavyweight championship of the world. It is the one that gets the most press. I think it is because at some point in time, everybody in their life always argued about who could get from this point to this point the fastest. And it is always a short a distance. So a lot of people can relate to it."
Back in the day, Greene consistently ran fast, clocking under 10 seconds a record 54 times. His six-year reign as world's fastest man -- briefly interrupted by Tim Montgomery, whose record was tossed out because of his role in the BALCO scandal -- ranks as one of the longest. So it's not surprising that Greene basked in the role.
"I like pressure," he says. "It was very enjoyable. I love getting out there and competing and someone else wanting to challenge me and say they're the best. I love that. That is the purity of competition.
"I wasn't an athlete hung up on having the title for my name. I just wanted to go out there and be the best athlete I could be. Every time I stepped on the track, I tried to impress people. I want people to be impressed by what I've done or what I am doing. I am basically running for them."
9.78 seconds: TIM MONTGOMERY, Sept. 14, 2002
Site: Paris, IAAF Grand Prix
Note: WR was annulled after his disqualification from the sport for his role in the BALCO scandal.
In his own words:
"I remember going out there on the track. Me and Trevor [Graham, his coach] just got into [an argument]. I remember looking over to my left and there was Dwain Chambers. He was the runner [BALCO founder] Victor Conte built to beat me. He was the one that came after me. I looked and I saw Maurice Greene to my right in the stands. He's the one I had been chasing. He disrespected me. I remember one race where after he came by and stuck out his tongue at me.
"To see those two -- it made me want to run fast. I remember taking a deep breath. Then, bang, the gun went off. I drove so hard. At 30 meters, it just felt like the race begun. I had so much power left. At the finish line, the crowd was going crazy. When they announced the new world record, everything went blank."
Tim Montgomery spends his nights and days inside an Alabama federal prison camp, the price for bank fraud and heroin distribution convictions. His ties to the BALCO scandal and subsequent suspension from the sport led to the erasure of his world mark. But as he goes about his daily prison gig, working on the landscape crew, Montgomery still fancies himself the world's fastest man.
"Ever since I was 7 years old, I've been running. I've been fast," says Montgomery, attired in prison-issued green khaki pants and shirt. "Whenever you have the gift and display it -- it's like being a gladiator. You just travel country to country. And you're taking guys down as you go. It was a great feeling. And to achieve it from where I came from made it an even better feeling.
"What keeps me smiling every day is the memory of the world record. I can be looked up. It's in the books. When I'm [alone] with no one around me, I can still picture the day I set the world record."
On that September day in Paris almost seven years ago, no one had ever run faster than Montgomery. Not Ben Johnson in Seoul. Not even Olympic champions such as Carl Lewis, Donovan Bailey and Maurice Greene.
"It was very important," he says, reflecting on his 9.78 clocking. "Achieving something no one else has, going down in the history books -- it is the top of the food chain. You look around sports and see people switching teams so they can win a Super Bowl ring or an NBA title. But this is just you. It's an individual thing. And when you get the record, you will be remembered."
9.77 seconds: JUSTIN GATLIN, May 12, 2006
Site: Doha, Qatar, IAAF Grand Prix
Note: Later annulled after positive drug test.
In his own words:
"Qatar was on the list of places where we wanted to try and break the world record that year. It was one of those places where they have prelims and a final. I remember the track was definitely fast. It was real dry and hot. The first round, one of my competitors got out on me, but I was able to pull him back in. I kind of slowed up coming across the line, because it was a prelim. And I tied what I ran in the Athens Olympics [where he won gold in 9.85] with less effort. So I was like, 'Wow. If I do everything right, I could break this world record today.' I tried not to think too much about breaking the world record, but working on my flaws, which was getting out of the blocks good and running all the way through the line. I did that.
"In the race, the same competitor [Olusoji Fasuba of Nigeria] got out. He seemed so far ahead of me as I came out of my drive phase. I had to hawk him down. I did. Instead of coming up to him and running next to him, I ran past him. That is how I really broke the world record. I probably caught him at the 60-, 65-meter mark and passed him maybe 20 or below meters to the finish line."
Justin Gatlin still insists he was sabotaged, that he never dabbled with performance-enhancing drugs. He hopes to be reinstated and be back on the track next year. In the wake of the suspension, he tried catching on in the NFL and started up a speed and agility training facility outside Atlanta.
His NFL pursuit ended after a 2007 minicamp showing with the Tampa Bay Bucs failed to result in a contract.
"It was harder for the simple fact that one sport can recognize another sport in a different light," he says. "Football recognizes track guys as fast guys who can't really run good routes because they don't know how to stop. They run in straight lines and they have no hands. I debunked that myth. I was able to catch balls and run routes. But it was that essence around me, I guess, that I was a track athlete.
"I don't know the different routes and the calls, but I could run the routes if necessary. I guess the fast pace of football at that level, it is hard to learn. I'm sitting up at night in minicamp to 2 in the morning while my teammate next to me is asleep, getting his rest. We have to get up at 6 o'clock in the morning. I'm sitting up here trying to read, trying to remember all these plays. We have brand-new plays every day. So it's not like 'Hey, I missed this so I'll go back tomorrow and do it.'"
Suffice to say, Gatlin sees his future in track, uncertain as it may be at this point, as opposed to another attempt to make it in the NFL.
"Running track is my focus and dream," he explains. "I'd rather come back to a place where I was the king than go somewhere where I've got to build myself all the way from the bottom up, especially at this point in time."
Whatever obstacles lie ahead shouldn't be too overwhelming, he reasons -- not for someone who dealt with the challenges of being the world's fastest man and an Olympic gold medalist (2004).
"You have a target on your back being the world's fastest man," he says. "Everyone is geared up to go against you. You have this small group of people who are ready to face you and battle you, and take that title from you and debunk you. Or you have that large group who pretty much fears you and don't want to race you.
"At same time, when you hold the record, you don't get a trophy or medal for breaking the world record. You break the world record. And it sits on pages. So you can't walk around with physical evidence that you are the world-record holder. And when it is broken, guess what? You are the former world-record holder. I will be the 2004 Olympic gold medalist forever. I have the medal."
9.74 seconds: ASAFA POWELL, Sept. 9, 2007
Site: Rieti, Italy, IAAF Grand Prix
Note: Bettered his own mark of 9.77, which Gatlin had equaled prior to a positive drug test. WR came after a disappointing third-place finish at the World Championships the previous month in Osaka, Japan.
In his own words (to reporters after the race):
"I proved to the world that Asafa is back. I was nervous in Osaka. I forgot how I should have run in the last 40 meters of a race. In Osaka, I was too tense. I thought too much about my race and the time I was hoping to achieve. On the other hand, I was very relaxed in coming to [Rieti].
"I learned again to run from the start and to be more relaxed. I always thought I could have run faster. If I had had a more favorable tailwind in the final, I could have run faster."
It was during field day races back in 2001 that Asafa Powell came to know he had a gift. He remembers no one at Charlemont High School in Jamaica being able to touch him in the sprints.
"After that, I just said to myself, and I kept repeating it, that 'one day I want to become the fastest man in the world,'" Powell recalls. "It's been that way ever since I started competing."
Powell grew up a fan of American sprinter and former world-record holder Maurice Greene. He broke the world record twice -- first in Athens in 2005 (9.77) and two years later in Rieti, Italy (9.74).
His success was particularly heady stuff back home in Jamaica.
"People start noticing you," he says. "You start walking the street and people come up to you, 'Hey, that is the fastest man. That is Asafa Powell.' It is not only the money. You get the fame that comes with it. Your lifestyle has to change because these young kids start looking up to you. You are now a role model for a bunch of people.
"I tried to make sure when I am in public to be the best way that I can. Even in Jamaica, the kids really look up to me. Even the older people, middle-age people, appreciate me. So I always try to maintain that kind of person. Be a people person. The only changes I have seen for me really are financially."
9.69 seconds: USAIN BOLT, Aug. 16, 2008
Site: Beijing, Olympics
Note: Bettered his own WR 9.72 set three months earlier in New York.
In his own words (to reporters after the race):
"It was crazy, phenomenal. I felt the world record earlier on. But I didn't even know I'd broken the world record until I did my victory lap.
"I wanted to please myself and I did. I simply don't know [how fast I can go]."
The expectations being shouldered by Usain Bolt right now are ridiculous, if not unfair, and he brings some of that pressure on himself. Many athletes might try to tone down the hype, but not Bolt. He's leading the discussion about his quest to become a legend.
So is he cocky or just confident?
"I am confident," Bolt says easily. "I know the work I put into it. I am trying to come out and do great things."
His next big stage comes this week at the World Championships in Berlin. In the meantime, Bolt also relishes the role of trying to help the sport regain some of its popularity.
"I want to do it," he says. "I have responsibility because sports is my job. So I work at it. I work hard. I want to see the sport get back to where it was."
Like Carl Lewis before him, Bolt sounds more excited about collecting Olympic hardware than staying atop the sprint game as the world's fastest man. That's easy to say, of course, when your 9.69-second clocking sits atop the charts and isn't likely to be challenged by anyone else very soon.
"I definitely think the [world's fastest man] title has some distinction, but I don't put so much on it because I don't put so much [emphasis] on time," Bolt says. "I think there may be a lot more [record holders] come after me, but there's not going to be many Olympic champions because it comes every four years. And there's not going to be a lot of world champions, either.
"If I run fast and win [medals], that is all that is important."
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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