| ||Wednesday, December 1|
Special to ESPN.com
|You may have heard that the IAAF recently named its athletes of the century.
The winners: Holland's Fanny Blankers-Koen and Carl Lewis of the United
States. Blankers-Koen won four Olympic golds when women's track and field was
in its infancy. Lewis won four straight in the long jump, and added five more
in other events.
The award is an honor, to be sure. Subject to debate, of course. Any two fans who can agree on two athletes of the century probably have identical DNA.
It's possible that one crucial part of the criteria the IAAF used was that the athlete be living and breathing. Makes for a better acceptance speech (but definitely worked against such candidates as Paavo Nurmi and Jesse Owens).
If that's so, bad move. While Lewis truly performed like an immortal on the track, he has never failed to disappoint when faced with a microphone.
In bad taste, timing is everything
While it would be possible to say many bad things about Nebiolo that are true, one must acknowledge that -- whatever his motives -- he brought track and field into the modern world, and almost single-handedly transformed it into a professional sport (a claim, incidentally, that Lewis makes for himself).
On the podium at the Gala, Lewis politely paid tribute to Owens, the first man to win four golds in a single Olympics. The next day, he vented his true feelings about the sport that made him a wealthy man, saying, "The sport is losing credibility because people know it is dirty ... It is not about testing; it is about lies and cover-ups."
It is Lewis' longstanding position that drugs run rampant. For this he offers no evidence. His contention that positive drug tests are frequently swept under the carpet is one that, ironically, offers him no refuge at all. If a drug test cannot be relied upon, then how can we be sure anyone is clean? How can Lewis expect that his own accomplishments, and those of other great champions, be viewed without suspicion?
All the rubbish aside, one has to be ashamed that the man selected as the athlete of the century would turn a celebration of the sport into a trashing of it. If holding that exalted title has anything to do with moral leadership, then it is clear that a grave mistake was made in handing it to Lewis. Nebiolo is probably apologizing to Owens right now.
Runner of the century
Kelley, you may remember, won the Boston Marathon twice, but earned much of his fame for running the Beantown race an amazing 58 times. Not 100, but close enough.
Ranking the century
No. 30 -- Olympic Men's Hammer, Melbourne 1956: Hal Connolly played a part in two of the greatest dramas of the Games, but most remember him just for one. He fell in love with Czech thrower Olga Connolly in Melbourne, and their Iron Curtain romance intrigued many in the year it took to get the Communist government in Czechoslovakia to agree to their marriage.
On the field, Connolly posed other problems for the Reds. Mikhail Krivonosov of the Soviet Union held the world record in the hammer. Connolly opened up with a long heave that went foul. Krivonosov then took the lead in round two with a throw of 206 feet, 8 inches. Connolly crept close in round three with a 205-6, but Krivonosov added an inch (206-9). Then in round five, Connolly hurled an Olympic record 207-3. The Russian could not respond.
Connolly continued to improve over the next few years, and by 1965, owned seven of history's eight longest throws. However, while he still owns the gold, his marriage to Olga lasted only 17 years. Connolly's son (by a second marriage), Adam, threw 236-7 this season and placed fourth in the U.S. nationals.
No. 29 -- Olympic Trials Men's 400 Hurdles, Indianapolis 1988: A year earlier, three men had broken 48 seconds in the World Championships; it was the first time that so many had run so fast over the one-lap hurdles. The field in Indianapolis topped that.
The legendary Edwin Moses reigned supreme, leading the field from the start. Kevin Young ran close behind, but hit the ninth hurdle. That left Andre Phillips as Moses' closest challenger, with Danny Harris, the man who had ended the King's winning streak, closing fast.
As Young recovered and caught Harris, David Patrick produced a blistering finish out of lane one. While Moses (47.37) and Phillips (47.58) finished 1-2, Young (47.72), Patrick (47.75) and Harris (47.76) crossed together. It was the fastest mass finish ever, yet only the top three qualified for the Olympics, leaving two of the fastest six runners in history home to watch it on TV.
No. 28 -- World Championships Women's 100, Stuttgart 1993: As much as this race mirrored other fantastically close dash finishes we have seen from the top women over the past decade, it also highlighted the great differences in the attitudes of the winners versus the losers.
Four women figured to be in the mix: Gwen Torrence, Russia's Irina Privalova, Jamaican Merlene Ottey, and Gail Devers, attempting a dash/hurdles double. Privalova led for much of the first half of the race before succumbing to the speed of Devers.
Ottey then pulled even with the compact American in the final meters, and appeared to have a slight lead with a step to go. Then Devers threw her body into a lean at the finish, while the tall Jamaican remained relatively upright.
Replays of the stadium video didn't help the crowd separate the two. Finally, the announcer hailed Devers as the winner, 10.81 to 10.82. The Jamaicans immediately protested. Said Devers, "The protest doesn't bother me at all. I need to focus on the hurdles now. This race is over."
Ottey told the press, "If the protest goes against me, it will be the wrong decision." After a couple hours, the panel, not unanimously, declared Devers victorious, with a corrected time of 10.82. The photo showed a margin of just 0.004 seconds, or one centimeter. Ottey lashed out, "I'm the champion. They made a mistake but won't admit it."
No. 27 -- Olympic Men's 5,000, Montreal 1976: This is the race that legions of Steve Prefontaine worshippers are in denial about; had the American star not been killed in a 1975 car crash, they insist, he would have won gold in Montreal.
Fat chance. Four years earlier, Finland's Lasse Viren destroyed Pre and the rest of the 5,000-meter field with a 4:01.2 final mile. Here, he set out to win his fourth gold medal. Never before had anyone won the Olympic 5,000 twice. And the deck seemed stacked against Viren. He had already raced 25,000 meters in the previous week, running the heats and final of the 10K, plus a 5,000 heat.
His competition included several faster men who could be trouble in a slow race, especially if Viren showed signs of fatigue. New Zealanders Dick Quax and Rod Dixon both had better speed credentials. After seven laps at a solid pace, Viren took the lead, to slow the race down. He was tired. Over the next few laps, the lead changed hands several times.
With a kilometer to go, Viren took over again. Brendan Foster passed him, but the Finn quickly regained the lead. At the bell lap, the top five were separated by 0.4 seconds. With 300 left, Ian Stewart made his bid, but Viren fought him off. Dixon made a powerful move on the last turn, but Viren easily lengthened his stride and pulled away. Then, on the straightaway, Quax sprinted to pull even with the Finn, but like all the others, he could not beat him.
Viren won in 13:24.76. Exhausted? Sure, but a few days later he also placed fifth in the marathon.
No. 26 -- Olympic Trials Women's 100 Hurdles, Los Angeles 1984: If a great race is defined as a close one, the Trials 100 hurdles took the cake. Stephanie Hightower and Kim Turner (later McKenzie) led early, with Benita Fitzgerald joining the party at midway. Then Pam Page closed fast in the final stages.
All four cleared the final hurdle evenly, and when they dipped at the finish, silence reigned. The human eye could not tell who the top three were, let alone who won. The finish was shown repeatedly on the stadium screen, but it did little to settle matters.
The head of the photo-finish panel said that it was the closest race he had ever seen, but the results were clear: Turner won in 13.12, with Fitzgerald (13.13) in second, Page (13.13) in third, and Hightower (13.13) in fourth. The margin from first to fourth was less than the width of this page.
No. 25 -- Olympic Decathlon, Rome 1960: Rafer Johnson and C.K. Yang were friends and UCLA teammates. The Olympic decathlon, however, put them in different uniforms. Johnson, an American, was favored over the man who was known in Taiwan as Yang Chuan-kwang.
On day one, both performed as expected, Johnson finishing the long day (it ended after midnight) with a 55-point lead. At the start of day two, the American hit disaster in the hurdles. With a PR of 13.8, he could manage only 15.3, handing Yang a 128-point lead. Johnson popped a great discus throw, getting 144 points ahead. In the vault, Yang pulled to within 24 points.
Johnson started the final event, 1,500 meters, 67 points ahead of his friend. He knew he would have to stay in contact with Yang, who needed a nine-second margin to take the gold. Johnson did it, finishing 1.2 seconds behind. His gold medal score of 8,392 translates to 7,901 on the current scoring tables. It was his final decathlon.
No. 24 -- AAU Men's 400, Philadelphia 1941: While much of the rest of the world was enmeshed in World War II, America waited in 1941 for the other shoe to drop. Long before many of them had heard of Pearl Harbor, the American athletes still trained. The year before, their Olympics had been cancelled; what they future held, they could not guess.
Yet there were great runners competing, and one was Cal's Grover Klemmer. He had set a world record in the 440 by clocking 46.4 to win the Pacific Coast Conference (forerunner of the Pac-10). That mark was inferior to the 400-meter best of 46.0, held by Germany's Rudolf Harbig.
At Philadelphia's Franklin Field, Klemmer lined up with his rivals from USC, Hubie Kerns and Cliff Bourland, to settle the national championship. All were tired, having run their heats less than an hour before. The runners went out fast, hitting 200 in 21.8 on the one-turn course.
Klemmer led the tiring sprinters home, but he was not alone. It would be one of the closest, and fastest, one-lap races of all time. Klemmer clocked 46.0 to tie the world record. At 46.1, both Kerns and Bourland crossed, and Al Diebolt ran a great 46.4 in fourth.
No. 23 -- Olympic Trials Men's 200 - South Lake Tahoe 1968: John Carlos and Tommie Smith trained together and raced together, and the two stood atop the world. At the final Olympic Trials, when they lined up for their 200 showdown, silence ruled. Until Larry Questad "let out a yelp" when he saw an ant near his hand.
A few minutes later, ant relocated, the race started. Carlos ran the best turn and led Questad and Jerry Bright by two yards as they entered the straightaway. Smith, running in lane one, lagged behind until the final 40 meters. He exploded toward the finish, but he could not overtake Carlos, who hit the line in a world-record 19.7. Smith grabbed second in 20.0, with Questad third in 20.1. Their electronic times were 19.92, 20.18, and 20.28.
Carlos' performance would be denied official recognition because he (as well as Smith) had worn 68-pin brush spikes, illegal under IAAF rules. A few months later at the Olympics, Smith would upend his friend in another great race, but his accomplishment would be overshadowed by the protest the two made on the victory stand in Mexico City.
No. 22 -- Olympic 5,000, Paris 1924: This is really the story of four races, and goes a long way to explaining why the term "immortal" so automatically connects itself to the name of Finland's Paavo Nurmi.
The stoic Finn wanted to win both the 1,500 and 5,000 in the Paris Games, a feat considered impossible since the events took place within one hour. In Helsinki, three weeks prior to the Games, he tried to simulate the double. His results of 3:52.6 and 14:28.2 -- both world records -- stunned observers.
In Paris, he won the 1,500 by burning off his rivals with a four-minute mile pace for the first half, then gliding in to a 3:53.6. Forty-two minutes later, he lined up for the 5,000. His opponents knew what they had to do, and went out hard, well under record pace. Nurmi stayed close. At the halfway mark, he took over, and only his teammate Ville Ritola could keep up. Nurmi crossed the line in 14:31.2, the second-fastest time in history. No one has succeeded in winning that double since.
The Flying Finn wasn't done, however. Two days later, he won the 10K cross country race by 400 meters on a day so hot that 23 of the 38 runners could not finish. The next day, he led Finland to victory in the 3K team race, just missing the world record with an 8:32.0.
No. 21 -- Golden Gala Men's Pole Vault, Rome 1984: Thierry Vigneron had just won the Olympic bronze and was the hottest vaulter on the circuit. World champion Sergei Bubka held the world record at 19-4.25, but had been boycotted out of the Games. Their match-up in Rome was eagerly anticipated.
A year earlier, Vigneron had leapt a record 19-1.5. This time, when both men cleared 19-2, Bubka led, clearing by a huge amount. Call it pressure. "I must win," Vigneron had told the press. He missed his first try at a new record, 19-4.75. Bubka was called on a time foul. Then, on Vigneron's second attempt, he cleared.
While the Frenchman celebrated, Bubka passed. The bar went up to 19-5.75. Vigneron signaled that he would pass. Just minutes after he lost his world record, Bubka hefted himself well over the bar, faintly brushing it on his way down. It was the only time in history the world record was raised twice in a single competition.
Vigneron took his last jumps at 19-7, Bubka at 19-8.25. Both failed. Yet this marked a day that 1980 Olympic champ Wladislaw Kozakiewicz had heralded a few months earlier: "I think the reign of Bubka has just begun." Vigneron's 10-minute hold on the record would be the last time another man held it. The 14 raisings of it since then have all been authored by the Ukrainian legend.
Jeff Hollobaugh, former managing editor of Track and Field News,
is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached by e-mail