As they enter the starting blocks, the three men glance at each other. One exudes swagger, confidence and sheer superiority as he extends his perfectly sculpted arms into an arrow. He nods to the crowd in acknowledgement. He is the entertainer. The second has faced trial and tribulation; he was told that he was not fit to be in this position. He is going against everything that the host country believes in. From a distance, as he settles into the blocks, his figure is a big middle finger to the world. The third’s steely determination has made him nowhere near the popular icon that his competitors are. His golden spikes shimmer as he settles into his blocks, refusing to take the liberty of inhaling the atmosphere as his opponents are. This man sees the bigger picture, he sees what the first is aiming to achieve, for he has done it.
The stadium falls into anticipatory silence, the three men have eyes only for the ticker tape. As the crowd takes a collective breath, the silence suddenly turns to pandemonium as the gun erupts.
These three men are Usain Bolt, Jesse Owens, and Michael Johnson. The race is this article, determining who is the greatest male track and field athlete of all time.
Bolt has taken the athletics track from merely a stage to showcase pure talent to the ultimate marketing mobile. Deals with Puma, Nissan, Hublot, Visa, Optus, and Virgin Media, to name but a few, still fail to paint the full picture of Bolt’s youthful exuberance and the impact it has had in an age where sport is becoming increasingly commercial.
After establishing himself as a child phenomenon, Bolt truly took the world by storm under the Bird’s Nest at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The statuesque, unusually slim sprinter blitzed to his first trio of sprint crowns (100m, 200m, 4x100m relay) all in world-record time. While the wins were expected, the times were far beyond what anyone had anticipated or witnessed before. Athletics had the superstar it needed to compete in the ever-monetized sporting age.
The athletics world was in shock. Surely no man would ever go this fast again, let alone even faster? Bolt, as he does with everything in life, laughed at this. At the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, he thundered down the track in 9.50 seconds (100m) and 19.19 seconds (200m) to take the records further away from the grasp of any 100 percent human.
An 11-time world champion and a commercial giant of a sportsman, Bolt has nothing left to achieve in athletics. While he has hinted that he may go again over 200m at the World Championships in London this August, he has already set himself up as the undoubted G.O.A.T.
An ever-growing enigma, Owens’s legacy becomes more impressive each time it is publicised. Leni Riefenstahl deserves credit for capturing the most iconic footage in athletic history: the white flare of the starting gun, Owens’s lurch, and then his upright run past his competitors in 10.3 seconds, and the ever-so-close tight shot of a perturbed Hitler.
Commissioned by the Propaganda Ministry to film the 1936 Berlin games, Riefenstahl was set to showcase the triumph of German athletes as proof of Aryan physical and intellectual superiority over the rest of the world. But Owens, who earned gold in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, the long jump and the 4-by-100-meter relay, became the true star of Riefenstahl’s film.
While people have long since beat Owens’s records, his achievements are much more than that.
As symbolic of a moral resistance as his achievements were, some may argue that Owens tainted his legacy by opting to try his luck in Hollywood rather than participate in the post-Olympic tour of Europe that the Amateur Athletic Union had arranged. Unable to break down the same barriers, leading roles were hard to come by for Owens.
Owens will forever be the most symbolic athlete of all time, as he fleetingly ran over Hitler’s ambitions. Athletic legends such as Carl Lewis have credited Owens with their success, such was his influence.
The gold shoes may have been auctioned off, and his 400m and 200m world records broken, but Johnson still holds a precious record – he is the only man to win the 400m and 200m at the same Olympics. No man had dared enter the combination of events to this point, with the 100m and 200m being far more common as the ‘sprinters’ double’.
Johnson was more than just an extraordinarily fast runner; he opened the door for commercial stardom. ‘The Man With Gold Shoes’ graced magazine covers around the world and secured multimillion-dollar-endorsement deals previously unthinkable for a sprinter. “I’m proud of being remembered as someone who changed the sport in terms of what’s possible,” says Johnson in his distinctively deep voice. Often referred to as a member of the iconic ‘MJ trio’ with Jordan and Jackson, it is an apt inclusion. All three of these men changed the world with their achievements, and Johnson fittingly sits on that podium with Jordan. To place him that highly is a glowing indication of just how immense his impact was.