First official World recordholder for the men's 100m: Donald Lippincott at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm (Getty Images) © Copyright
The history of the record is interesting in itself, with the shortest classical distance highlighting technical advances in timing and surfaces. 100m record holders, however, represent the current summit of human achievement in an elemental feat understood by children as easily as scientists.
The title of "World’s Fastest Man" might have been small comfort to Donald Lippincott, the first holder of the 100m World record, as he left Stockholm without Olympic gold. On 6 July 1912 Lippincott ran a time of 10.6 in the 100m qualifying rounds, but was defeated in the final by Ralph Craig and Alvah Meyer, both his teammates on the USA squad. Returning for the 200m, he was bested again by Craig, but this time took silver.
Despite four Germans having recorded 10.5 times in the year leading up to the Stockholm Games, however, Lippincott left Sweden as the World record holder, and would keep that title for eight years without peers. In 1920 Jackson Scholz gained a share of the record, and finally in 1921 Charlie Paddock knocked the record down to 10.4.
Ties, timing and consolidation
The next fifty years of ratified records looked very similar, with hand-timed tenths of a second coming off the best performances in the world, then those performances being equalled, perhaps repeatedly, before another tenth finally came off. As many as ten men officially shared the ratified World record at times, with as many as twelve ratified performances, although as wind readings became widely available those numbers were sometimes available to compare otherwise-identical times.
In the second half of the twentieth century, competition to become the World’s Fastest Man got tougher as automatic timing became widely available and, starting in 1977, required for World record ratification. Records could now be sliced to hundredths of seconds. Jim Hines, whose 9.95 Olympic record in Mexico City had given him a share of the World record at 9.9, now became the sole holder of the record.
At the same time, in the United States, a drive toward wider use of international measurement meant more sprinters were competing at 100m and fewer at the imperial distances of 100y and 110y. Since Lippincott’s first ratified World Record, forty-four men have held or shared the record with 67 ratified marks; twenty-six of those men represented the USA. (Of other countries, Canada, Jamaica and Germany have all had three record-holders. Since the shift to automatic timing, seven men have held the record, four from the USA, two from Jamaica, and one from Canada.)
Aiding the revolution in speed was the transition from dirt tracks to synthetic surfaces, which offered more regular footing and returned more energy to sprinters, allowing them to turn more of their raw power into speed. Bob Hayes’ 10.0 in Tokyo, 1964 (automatically timed as 10.05) was on a soft, chewed-up lane 1; four years later on a synthetic track in Mexico City, benefiting from altitude as much as the improved footing, Jim Hines ran 9.95.
The records and the romance
Numbers are one thing, but the magic of the 100m comes from the men on the track. The winners at this iconic distance often became folk heroes like the near-legendary Jesse Owens. They are known by nicknames, like "Bullet" Bob Hayes (Owens was also known as "the Buckeye Bullet") and or "King" Carl Lewis. Hayes, who went on to a successful career in NFL football, was a celebrity in his day, as was Owens.
Many former record holders have a complicated relationship with the fame, particularly those for whom the record came without global championships. Leroy Burrell, who set World records in 1991 and 1994, told ESPN reporter Mike Fish in 2009, "I don't think athletes sit around [saying], 'Well, I am the world's fastest man.' … 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." Lippincott, the frustrated Olympic bronze medallist, might have said the same.
Maurice Greene, on the other hand, believed in the power of the record, saying, "The biggest event in track and field is the 100 meters. [...] 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 distance. So a lot of people can relate to it."
Writing in Grantland last year, American sportswriter Chuck Klosterman agreed, arguing, "Sprinting has represented half of the 'fight or flight’ instinct for the totality of human existence, yet we still have no idea of our true limitations… which explains why [athletics] will always matter."
Records and medals
Today the record, the medals, and the glamour are all tied up in the same man: Usain St. Leo "Lightning" Bolt, defending Olympic champion, 2009 World champion, and three-time World record setter with clockings of 9.72, 9.69 and 9.58.
"The World record means nothing without gold medals in the World Championships or the Olympics," said Bolt on the occasion of his first record. "If you are the Olympic champion, they have to wait four years to try to beat you." Four years later, challengers are nearing the end of waiting to challenge Bolt the Olympic champion. In the past Olympiad, only Tyson Gay has joined Bolt under 9.70, with a 9.69 in Shanghai in 2009; should Bolt’s record survive into 2013, he may find himself the longest-reigning World’s Fastest Man since Jim Hines’ 9.95.
Speculation continues about the ultimate limits of human performance, but as long as the possibility exists that even Bolt may improve his own record–and no sprinter has ever admitted to running a race they could not improve somewhere–one of those limits remains just out of sight, with the World Record just a mark along our road toward it.
Parker Morse for the IAAF