There is something raw and unfussy about the 100m. All one has to do is blast off from the blocks upon hearing the crack of the starting gun and run in a straight line till the finish.
There is something raw and unfussy about the 100m. All one has to do is blast off from the blocks upon hearing the crack of the starting gun and run in a straight line till the finish. The rules of the event are so simple that they need no explaining at all.
In terms of prestige, however, the shortest track event on the Olympic programme towers above everything else. Among the 306 gold medals on offer at Rio, nothing is more precious than the one presented to the men’s champion.
The modern Olympics got off the floor in 1896 with a 100m heat and people’s fascination with the visceral dash hasn’t worn off a bit. After Thomas Burke of the USA stopped the clock at 12 seconds flat to become the first 100m champion, it took an Olympic champion another 72 years to shave off more than two seconds.
Jim Hines of the US was the first gold medallist to clock a sub-10 time, 9.95 seconds. The high altitude of Mexico City was no doubt useful to Hines in 1968. At around 2,200 metres above sea level, Mexico City’s lower air resistance was equivalent to a 1.5 metre tailwind.
One thing we can’t fail to notice about an Olympic 100m final these days is its all-black cast. Descendants of west Africans in the US and elsewhere have monopolised medals in the 100m because they are endowed with fast-twitch muscles. At the other end of Africa, in the east, athletes are more suited to distance running. Ethiopia and Kenya produce middle and long distance runners by a truckload but no top-class sprinter has come up from the two nations.
The language of Olympic 100m champions has predominantly been English since 1896. Barring a German in 1960 and a Soviet in 1972, English-speaking sprinters have ruled the roost. Jesse Owens was the most notable winner in the first half of the 20th century and Ben Johnson who was stripped of his gold in 1988 following a positive dope test is the most notorious in the event’s history.
Just when it appeared that the 100m was losing its sheen in the new millennium, an ebullient champion from Jamaica emerged in 2008 to rewrite the rules of the game. Athletics hadn’t seen an entertainer like Usain St Leo Bolt. The Jamaican’s gold medal in 9.69 seconds in 2008 was a seminal moment in the annals of the sport. He knew how to run. More importantly, he knew how to put on a show. Bolt is the antithesis of American Carl Lewis, a glum champion with two 100m golds on the trot.
In 2012 Bolt became the only second man to retain his Olympic gold after Lewis. The Jamaican, already the only athlete with back to back 200m crowns, is going for a historic triple treble of 100m, 200m and 4x100m gold at Rio.
Bolt, who can never be accused of being modest, has proclaimed that athletics needs him to win. He isn’t wrong. In the aftermath of the Russian doping scandal, the defending champion knows he alone can deliver the good news to his beleaguered sport.
Standing between Bolt and immortality is Justin Gatlin, the American with a gold medal from 2004 and a shady past. Having served two dope bans, Gatlin is in the fight of his life to shake off the “demon” image. He heads into Rio with the world’s leading time of 9.80 seconds this year. At 34, Gatlin has a chance to become the oldest 100m Olympic champion. But his fate is in Bolt’s hands.
The Jamaican, who owns the 100m and 200m world records, can end all debates about the greatest athlete in the world if he goes on to complete triple treble at Rio. History beckons him.