The men’s 100 metres has come a staggeringly long way since American Tom Burke won the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896.

Burke crossed the line in 11.80 seconds, more than two seconds off the current world record of 9.58 seconds held by sprint sensation Usain Bolt.

The Jamaican has played his own part in the resurgence of sprinting, transforming public perceptions of track and field when he won both the 100 and 200m in the 2008 Beijing Olympics in then-world record times.

But it is US athletes who have dominated the Olympic men’s 100 metres, winning it 17 out of 27 finals.

Only Carl Lewis, in 1984 and 1988, has won the title in consecutive Games in recent times, a feat Bolt will try to match in London.

Bolt and Lewis are just two of the names who have illuminated the 100 metres down the years.

The 1981 film “Chariots of Fire” famously depicted the story of thinly-framed Briton Harold Abrahams, who became the first European to win the 100m title in Paris in 1924 in 10.6sec, running down a cinder track in a thick cotton outfit.

While American Eddie Tolan equalled the world record of 10.38 seconds in the 1932 Games, his feat was soon overshadowed by the subsequent Berlin Olympics.

The smooth-running black American Jesse Owens claimed four golds, including the 100m, to become the most successful athlete of the 1936 Games.

His performances were made more poignant because German leader Adolf Hitler had intended the Olympics to showcase his Nazi party’s Aryan ideals.

Electronic timing was introduced at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, while the last cinder track was used at the 1964 Games in Tokyo as stadia started fitting rubber-based tracks.

Synthetic surfaces played their part in encouraging faster times, with the American Jim Hines clocking 9.95 seconds in the following Olympics in Mexico City in 1968, the first automatically timed sub-10 second time.

But that his mark remained as a world record until 1983 also had much to do with it being set at altitude.

Carl Lewis mirrored Owens’ achievement on home soil in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, winning the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump.

Four years later, Canada’s Ben Johnson was declared the initial winner of the 100m in 9.79 seconds, only to be stripped of the title of the world’s fastest man after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

Lewis received his second 100m gold after being bumped up from his second-place finish.

The 1990s saw the arrival in the 100m of a raft of showmen with the likes of Briton Linford Christie, Canada’s Donovan Bailey and American Maurice Greene, who between them won the three golds on offer from 1992-2000.

Illegal drug use continues to rear its ugly head in athletics, particularly among sprinters desperate for an edge in an event where power is key.

One of the most recent high-profile names to fall foul of doping rules was American Justin Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic gold medal winner in Athens and double sprint champion at the 2005 Helsinki worlds.

Gatlin is back after serving a four-year ban, however, and is considered a medal contender for the 100m in London, along with teammate Tyson Gay.

As an indication of how far sprinting has come since leading sports manufacturer Adidas supplied Owens, Gay’s running spikes for the 100m now weigh just 99 gm, thanks to space technology material.

(This article was published on August 3, 2012)
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