Wednesday, December 29
Mills finishes on top -- again
 
By Jeff Hollobaugh
Special to ESPN.com

 The long-awaited top 10 track and field competitions of the century are here, and now is the time to raise a mighty cry if your favorite has been left off the list.

"Why, oh why?!" you might demand, in your last moment of great indignation during this millennium. The answer probably is that your favorite -- be it Bannister's first sub-four minute mile, Flojo's 10.49-second sprint, or Beamon's world-record long jump -- wasn't really a great competition. Great performance by an individual? Sure. But a great competition involves some level of uncertainty or surprise about who will win the event, at least for most of its duration.

For the next 100 years, providing great competitions may prove to be one of the sport's greatest challenges. They can still be found in abundance at many levels in the sport, from age-group races to college championships. At the elite level, however, we are still seeing more big stars ducking each other, as well as the numbing over-reliance on rabbited distance races in most invitationals.

A sport that devotes itself single-mindedly to the pursuit of records will surely disenchant most fans because the majority of record chases inevitably end in failure. Meanwhile, the pursuit itself costs the sport its very soul; the hard-fought competitions from which the sport once sprang are becoming novelties, granted to us lowly fans only when the powerful business managers decide that the price is right.

So here, for the sake of argument, are the 10 greatest competitions of this century. My wish for the next century is that we find a way to make real competition palatable for the top stars, so that we can find just as much inspiration in the deeds of the next century's heroes.

No. 10 -- Olympic Men's 10,000, Melbourne 1956: Soviet star Vladimir Kuts didn't just defeat his opposition in the 10,000; he destroyed it. He opened with a scorching 61.2 lap, and before long had eliminated all his rivals with the exception of Britain's Gordon Pirie, the world record holder in the 5,000. Kuts ripped through halfway in 14:07 (the Olympic record was 14:06.6) as Pirie struggled to remain in the game.

Every time Pirie caught up, Kuts would unleash another surge, or he would move to the second or third lane, urging the Briton to pass him. Not until 8K did Pirie take the bait. Within a lap, Kuts had flown by him at top speed, crushing him psychologically. Pirie faded to eighth place, more than a minute behind Kuts' winning 28:45.6, an Olympic record.

Five days later, Kuts dominated the 5,000-meter field to win in an Olympic-record 13:39.6. This time, a recovered (and wiser) Pirie hung on for the silver medal.

No. 9 -- Empire Games Men's Mile, Vancouver 1954: First Britain's Roger Bannister earned immortality by breaking the four-minute mile with his time of 3:59.4. Six weeks later, Australian rival John Landy broke that mark with a 3:58.0, in another rabbited attempt.

The first true race under four minutes came when the two met at summer's end in the forerunner of the Commonwealth Games. Hype ran high: The race earned the label, "the Miracle Mile." The bookies tabbed Landy as the favorite with 4-to-1 odds.

On the first lap, two English runners boxed Landy in, giving rise to the suspicion of team tactics. One of the Brits, however, soon lost a shoe, and Landy burst into the lead on the second turn. He hit the quarter in 58.2, with Bannister lagging in fifth. At the half, Landy clocked 1:58.2, and still had seven yards on Bannister. A 59.3 third lap brought Bannister within two yards of Landy, who led at 2:58.4.

Landy rightfully feared Bannister's kick, and sprinted from the bell as if his life depended on it. Bannister struggled to stay close, and on the final straightaway, finally made his move. As Landy looked over his left shoulder to see where he was, Bannister pulled even and passed on the right.

The Briton crossed victorious in 3:58.8 to Landy's 3:59.6. So the pace had been so exhausting that neither man, despite the importance and closeness of the contest, could break 30 seconds for the final half-lap. In his autobiography, Bannister wrote of the race, "John Landy had shown me what a race could really be at its greatest."

No. 8 -- Olympic Men's Discus, Tokyo 1964: Few figured that Al Oerter could win a third straight discus gold. Not only had he been troubled by a bad cervical disc, but doctors told him not to compete because of torn cartilage in his rib cage.

Oerter whipped an Olympic-record toss of 198 feet, 7 inches in the qualifying round, causing the pundits to redraw their formcharts. In the final, however, the mighty Kansan struggled. After four rounds, Oerter was only in fourth place. Ludvik Danek, the world record holder from Czechoslovakia, led at 198-7. Oerter was more than seven feet behind at 191-5, throwing hurt. He said, "It felt like someone was trying to tear out my ribs."

Then, in a performance that defined what performing under pressure is all about, Oerter hurled the discus out to 200-1, another Olympic record. He became the second man in history to win three consecutive golds in Olympic track and field.

No. 7 -- AAU Indoor Men's 600 yards, New York 1970: The finest indoor race of all time went to a man who barely earned a footnote with his accomplishments outdoors. Martin McGrady, a national class quarter miler, turned into a superhuman on the boards. In seven races leading up to the AAU national championships, he piled up seven victories and three world records.

With over 15,000 fans watching in Madison Square Garden, McGrady lined up against Olympic 400 champion Lee Evans to contest the now-defunct 600-yard distance. McGrady took off like a shot: "I decided to be a rabbit for once." By the end of the first straightaway, he had a five-yard lead on Evans.

McGrady hit 440 yards in 48.6 as observers called the pace "suicidal." All eyes watched for Evans to begin his late-race drive. At one point, it looked like he might summon the strength to run McGrady down. But McGrady found another gear, and steamed across the line in 1:07.6, crushing his old mark of 1:08.5. Evans, at 1:08.0, also bettered the old record: "I just ran out of straightaway."

Said McGrady, "This is the first race in a long time that has left me with hardly anything at the end." Indeed, he never again approached that time in his career. It wasn't until Mark Everett ran 1:07.53 in 1992 that the record, which gained luster with each passing year, finally fell. IAAF council member Bob Hersh, who reported on the race that day, still raves about McGrady's run as the greatest in indoor history.

No. 6 -- Olympic Men's 100 meters, Seoul 1988: The reviled Ben Johnson's place in history, it seems, is assured. At best he is a punchline; at worst, a nightmarish turning point for the sport.

Yet his infamous Olympic final remains one of the most exciting races ever seen by those who witnessed it first hand. The fiercest of rivals, Johnson and Carl Lewis couldn't have stood in greater contrast: Johnson was short, powerful, and bouncing with overabundant energy, while the tall, relatively thin Lewis stood calmly before the start.

Johnson's start had to be the greatest in history. He exploded from the blocks, putting Lewis into a hole from which he could never recover. By 20 meters, Johnson led by 0.07. At halfway, he had more than a tenth of a second on Lewis. Like an enraged animal finally set free, the Canadian ferociously clawed his way to the finish.

Lewis mounted his classic finishing drive, but he let up in the final strides when he saw how futile his efforts were. "I knew I couldn't get him," he later wrote. His coach, Tom Tellez, said, "He could have run a faster time if he'd forgotten about Ben and run his own race. If you're looking at someone else, you're not really running your own race."

Johnson crossed in 9.79, breaking his old world record of 9.83. Lewis crossed in 9.92. A day later, Johnson was disqualified, testing positive for the steroid stanolozol. A year later, both of Johnson's world records were erased, and record recognition went to Lewis and his 9.92.

What is history to do with the notion of revised results? The revision, not seen before or since at this level, came about as a result of massive public and political pressure. Never before had the sport been so embarrassed in its ultimate showcase; the cost in lost sponsorships, to this day, is immeasurable. Yet the race happened; Johnson demolished Lewis in a contest that was as highly anticipated and thrilling -- at the time -- as any in history. And only the stat types seem to have noticed that, while only Johnson faced eternal public damnation, half of the field that day has since been implicated in doping scandals.

No. 5 -- World Championships Men's 400 Hurdles, Rome 1987: Edwin Moses, in lane three, may have lost his win streak earlier in the year to Danny Harris, but he still ruled supreme over the long hurdles. Harris stood in lane five. Between the two stood West German Harald Schmid, the European record holder, and the last man to beat Moses before his win streak started 10 years earlier.

Moses used the inside lane to his advantage, rocketing out at a hellacious pace while his opponents wondered where he was. By the fifth hurdle, it became apparent to all that Moses had a two-meter lead over Harris and Schmid. Instead of pulling away, however, it was all the king could do to hold on.

At the final hurdle, the exhausted Moses led by a mere three feet. Harris stumbled and lost ground, while Schmid moved into second. All three sprinted hard, with Harris moving fastest. All three leaned at the same time. Observers could not tell who had won. Moses started on his victory lap ("perhaps from habit alone" observed Track and Field News). Harris and Schmid waited for the verdict.

Moses claimed the gold in 47.46, while Harris and Schmid both timed 47.48. No one had ever run faster for second or third place -- or fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth, for that matter. All hailed it the greatest hurdle race ever.

No. 4 -- Olympic Men's Steeplechase, Montreal 1976: Expectations ran high for this event, and only got higher when five men ran faster than the Olympic record in the heats.

In the final, Spain's Antonio Campos went out hard, but soon, favored Bronislaw Malinowski took over. The Pole was followed closely by Sweden's world record holder, Anders Garderud, East Germany's Frank Baumgartl, and Finland's Tapio Kantanen. At 2,000 meters (5:29.1), the foursome still hovered near world-record pace.

Garderud waited until the last 300 to make his move. He dashed past Malinowski, with Baumgartl close behind. The two were even at the last water jump, but Garderud, a better hurdler, gained a step there. Still, it looked to many as if the East German had enough momentum to catch Garderud at the last hurdle. Instead, Baumgartl chopped his step and slammed into the immovable barrier with his trail leg.

The crowd gasped as Baumgartl hit the ground hard. Malinowski hurdled over him, but Baumgartl still rose to his feet and desperately raced to the finish to grab the bronze medal in a personal-best 8:10.4. The two men who had beaten him had both slipped under the old world record: Garderud 8:08.0, Malinowski 8:09.2.

Said Baumgartl, "I remembered that when this happened to Lasse Viren ... in Munich, Lasse got up and won. It was just instinct to continue, and I don't even want to speculate on whether or not I would have won."

Garderud's performance was the last steeplechase record to belong to a non-Kenyan. The depth of the race, when compared to today's European times, shows just how clearly non-Africans have conceded the event to the Kenyans in recent years.

No. 3 -- World Championships Women's 1,500, Helsinki 1983: Mary Decker would never be better. The woman whom American fans either love or hate, Decker would not be denied in the summer of 1983. At the first World Championships, she faced the Soviets at their best. First, she stunned them by leading the 3,000 meters from start to finish, winning with a powerful kick that few expected she would have left.

Four days later came the 1,500. She faced three Soviets who had broken four minutes, led by Zamara Zaitseva (3:56.14), who false-started out of nervousness. Once the race got off in earnest, Decker hesitated before taking the lead. She hit 400 in 64.1, then slowed for a 2:11.0 at 800.

The pace favored kickers, and the Soviets looked very dangerous. Decker ran 65.7 for her third lap, then opened up some daylight on the backstretch. Zaitseva stayed close, and Yekaterina Podkopayeva tried to catch them. On the final turn, Zaitseva took the lead as Decker had to cut short her stride.

Decker entered the homestretch two meters behind, feeling like she had lost her momentum. With 60 meters left, she regrouped and charged. "I didn't want to feel that I cheated myself by not trying hard enough," she said. With 10 meters left, she came alongside Zaitseva. The Russian dived early and fell five meters from the line. Decker crossed victorious in 4:00.90 for her second gold as Zaitseva slid across in 4:01.19.

Other than Joan Benoit's marathon win the following year, an American woman has not won a World or Olympic distance gold since.

No. 2 -- World Championships Men's Long Jump, Tokyo 1991: Bob Beamon's historic 29-2.5 long jump in Mexico City reigned as the world record for nearly 23 years; many had considered it to be unbreakable. Carl Lewis had come close at several points in his career, and with a 10-year, 65-meet win streak, was widely considered the only man who had a chance.

On a hot, steamy night in Tokyo, Lewis faced his toughest rival, Mike Powell. Sometimes called "Powell the Foul" by those who criticized his inconsistency on the board, Powell knew he was ready to take on Lewis. An opening leap of 25-9.25 did not detract from that confidence. Lewis came up with a solid 28-5.75. Powell edged closer with a 28-0.25, then Lewis popped 28-11.75 on his third attempt, the longest jump of his career, though wind-aided.

On his fourth jump, Lewis tightened his grip on the gold with an improvement to 29-2.75, again with a wind over the allowable. Then Powell unleashed his stunner. Slower on the runway than his rival, he had a much more explosive take-off. He soared into the air to land at 29-4.5. The wind reading, a legal 0.3, confirmed he had broken Beamon's record. A jubilant Powell lifted an alarmed Japanese official off the ground in a bear hug.

Lewis, with two jumps remaining, had to come through like he never had before. He had been chasing Beamon's mark all his career, and now he needed to go well beyond it just to win. He fifth jump of 29-1.25 -- against the wind -- gave him a personal best, but no gold. After Powell passed his final attempt, a nervous Lewis pulled himself together for his last try. He soared to 29-0, one of the finest jumps in history, but only the fourth farthest of the day.

No. 1 -- Olympic Men's 10,000, Tokyo 1964: Conventional wisdom for most armchair coaches is that if you're the world record holder, and you don't have a kick, what you need to do to win a gold is to run as if you're going for a record. If the opposition can't keep up, then you win.

That's what sprintless Ron Clarke tried in Tokyo. Running near the front all the way on a damp track, he pushed the leaders to a world-record pace. At halfway, the leader actually was Sioux Indian Billy Mills in 14:04.6, but Clarke lurked a step behind. "I was thinking that I couldn't continue at this pace," said Mills.

In the second half the pace eased somewhat, and by the last lap, only three remained: Clarke, Mills, and Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia. Mills gained confidence when he saw a worried Clarke glance back. On the last curve, Mills tried to use a lapped runner to box Clarke in. The Australian tapped, then pushed Mills to escape. "I guess I pushed too hard, because he went way out," said Clarke. Gammoudi chose that moment to zip between them and take the lead, but Clarke quickly reeled him back in.

Then, with 50 meters left, Mills launched a spirited attack, stunning the world by flashing past the leaders. An astonished Clarke gave up the hunt as Mills captured the gold with an Olympic-record 28:24.4. After the finish, an official asked the U.S. Marine, "Who are you?"

Those amazed by Mills' breakthrough -- he ran approximately 35 seconds faster than his converted six-mile best -- should have been equally impressed by Gammoudi's 28:24.8 in second; he improved by an even bigger margin.

Mills later said, "At 60 yards to go, they were still ahead of me, and I couldn't hear anything except my heart pounding. And I knew I had won."

A word of thanks
Many are the fans who have suggested competitions that were included in this series. My appreciation also goes to the sportswriters whose work over the years has ensured a historical record of these great competitions. A special thanks to Track and Field News, without whose 50-plus years of coverage any history of the sport would be impossible.

The Mailbag
Bret Bloomquist: "Now that you are ranking the top 100 races in track, you should rank the bottom 5: 1. Michael Johnson vs. Donovan Bailey, 150 match race; 2. Jesse Owens vs. a horse; 3. Ben Johnson vs. a horse; 4. Ben Johnson wins Olympic gold; 5. Any track meet where Sergei Bubka sets a world record in the pole vault by a trillionth of an inch, quits, collects a big check for setting a world record, then moves on to the next meet and sets a new record by a trillionth of an inch.

"The best moments you haven't included yet: 2. Texas Relays, 1989, Baylor vs. Texas A&M in the men's 800 relay. Andre Cason gets the stick for the anchor leg 10 meters ahead of Michael Johnson. This is the race where Michael Johnson becomes Michael Johnson. Starting 10 meters behind, he wins by 10 meters. After the race, Baylor coach Clyde Hart refuses to say what Johnson's split was because "you'll think I'm lying." Rumor has it that the split (running start) was a low 18, but it's myth at this point.

"1. The legendary moment in Texas track history: 1976 Texas state high school Class 2A meet -- Johnny Lam Jones from Lampasas has a seventh-to-first anchor carry in the mile relay, about two months before he wins an Olympic gold medal in the 4 x 100 for USA. Depending on the source, he got the baton anywhere between 60 yards to 439 yards behind the leaders. Everyone was watching him -- he had run a 9.1 for 100 yards earlier in the year -- and the announcer simply called off the names of the six schools as he passed them. On the home stretch, with all 1,000,000 people in the stands screaming (the number of people who claim they were there; the stadium seated 70,000), the two leaders swung out into lane two, and he passed them at the tape. Those points, along with his lackluster victories in the 100 and 200, gave Lampasas enough points for the state title."

Jeff Hollobaugh, former managing editor of Track and Field News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached by e-mail at michtrack@aol.com.

 


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