The 100-meter dash is the oldest competition in sports. At the first Olympics, in 776 B.C., the only event was the “stade,” a sprint over flat ground. The modern version of the race looks pretty similar to the ancient one: eight men sprinting, arms jackknifing, knees kicking the sky. There’s no strategy, no team tactics. It’s a drag race from the gun to the tape, a test of raw power and acceleration. The 100-meter record holder can call himself the World’s Fastest Man and strut to victory platforms as the living embodiment of Mercury.
These days, the World’s Fastest Man is Jamaica’s Asafa Powell. Earlier this month, he lowered the record to 9.74 seconds at a meet in Italy. Powell may be the World’s Fastest Man, but he’s not the world’s best sprinter. That’s Tyson Gay, who beat Powell to win the 100 meters at this summer’s World Championships. Powell had a chance to reverse that at this weekend’s Super Meet in Osaka, the last big competition of the season, but he’s ducking out. He’ll run the 200 meters, while Gay runs the 100.
Powell’s failure to win the big one—he also finished fifth at the Athens Olympics—fits in perfectly with the race’s history. The 100 meters might be the purest possible test of athleticism, but the 100-meter record is the shadiest mark on the books. It’s been equaled or broken 17 times in the last 24 years, far more than any other track distance. Often, the World’s Fastest Man is a guy who caught a strong tailwind or raced on a fast track. Or both: When Powell ran a 9.74 in Italy, the track was superball fast and the wind was blowing at 1.7 meters per second behind him, just under the 2-meter limit needed to qualify for a world record. And sometimes the record-holder is a drug cheat. Ben Johnson (WFM ‘87) and Tim Montgomery (WFM ‘02) both had their times wiped out after they were caught doping. Justin Gatlin (WFM ‘06) has been banned from track and field for eight years. He may try pro football next.
The downward march of the 100-meter record is more a measure of technological advances than athletic greatness. The race has become a thoroughly unnatural, cyborg-ized event, one that belongs in a William Gibson novel rather than a Homeric epic. Lycra unitards replaced singlets. Weight rooms and nutritional supplements have built legs so muscular that every fiber shows through the skin. Thanks to electronic timing, the record can now be broken by one one-hundredth of a second, meaning today’s World’s Fastest Man is 0.1 percent faster than yesterday’s.
Today, every sprinter with a lick of speed in his legs gets to be World’s Fastest Man. That includes forgettable runners like Calvin Smith and Leroy Burrell, who never won the 100 at the Olympics or the worlds. They’re not champions; they’re simply living milestones for the march of athletic science. Smith, the World’s Fastest Man of 1983, ran a 9.93 in high-altitude Colorado Springs, breaking the mark set by Jim Hines (WFM ‘68) at the high-altitude Mexico City Olympics. The sporting world was not impressed. Track and Field News named Carl Lewis Athlete of the Year, pointing out that he was the first man to run under 10 seconds at sea level. (Track buffs love to adjust raw 100-meter times for wind speed and altitude. After Powell’s run in Rieti, visitors to the IAAF message boards calculated his “true” time as anywhere from 9.78 to 9.83.)
Lewis was the greatest track star ever to lace on spikes, but for most of his career he was not the World’s Fastest Man. Lewis didn’t run for world records. He ran to win and measured his success in victories, not numbers. At age 21, he missed a chance at the 200-meter record because he hot-dogged at the finish. “I run against opponents, not against absents,” Lewis explained.
Eventually, Lewis did break the 100-meter world record, at least technically. His 9.92 at the Seoul Olympics was ratified two years after the fact, when Ben Johnson’s times were stricken from the books. Lewis’ reign was brief, as Leroy Burrell soon sped away with the record. Lewis would set the standard once more, only to have Burrell pass him again. But with or without the best times in the world, Lewis was always the dominant sprinter of his era.
It’s not like that at other distances. In the same 24 years that the 100-meter record has been ticking toward the limits of human speed, the 200-meter record has been broken just twice, both times by Michael Johnson. At the Atlanta Olympics, he outdistanced the field like Secretariat winning the Belmont, chopping one-third of a second off the mark. And there it has stood for 11 years, a monument to Johnson’s supremacy. The 400-meter record has also been broken twice, most recently by Johnson. Sebastian Coe’s 1981 record of 1:41.73 in the 800 meters was long considered the greatest track performance ever. It stood for 16 years, before Wilson Kipketer took it down.
It makes sense that the 100-meter record gets broken more often than marks at longer distances. You can go after a sprint record at any track meet. Not only did Powell run his 9.74 at a small-time event called the Rieti Grand Prix, he did it in a heat. Opportunities to run blazing times at longer distances are few and far between. No one’s going to chase, say, the 800 record in a heat and risk tiring themselves out for the final. And no one would dare go for the record at a major championship and risk bonking out of a medal.
Johnson, Kipketer, and Coe are enduring names in track and field history because they won medals and set world records. Powell isn’t in their league. He doesn’t even have their respect. In a column for the BBC, Michael Johnson declared that Powell is “not a great competitor, you can see it in his eyes” and accused him of giving up when Tyson Gay passed him at the World Championships. When Powell set the record, he lamely explained that he was “too tense” that day and that “the real Powell is the one from today, not the Osaka one.”
The excuse sounds even lamer now that he’s passing up a chance to prove that he can beat Gay. To be fair, Gay has also avoided rematches with Powell, saying he doesn’t want to race the Jamaican unless he’s “100 percent.” Powell and Gay probably won’t meet again until next August, in Beijing. If Powell wins there, he can put his name next to Michael Johnson’s in the track pantheon. If not, he’ll be just another World’s Fastest Man. It won’t be long before we have a new one, in a sleeker bodysuit, on a springier track, with a stronger wind at his back.