Olympics: Evolution of the 100m sprint record

The 100m sprint is the most eagerly anticipated events come of the Olympics, but why is that the case?

It is almost certainly down to the speed of the athletes running the race. It’s the shortest track event in the Games and it made its debut back in the first Modern Olympiad in 1896. Let’s take a look at the history of the event.


The first ever event of the Modern Olympics was the first heat of the 100m sprint in 1896. An American called Tom Burke won the gold medal of the first Olympics with a time of 12 seconds. This nowadays seems incredibly slow and he recorded a faster time of 11.8 seconds in his preliminary heat. Unfortunately, the IAAF didn’t recognise the first 100m record until 1912, meaning that Burke’s gold in 1896, followed by Frank Jarvis and back-to-back golds from Archie Hahn weren’t recorded.


Donald Lippincott set the first 100m record ratified by the IAAF in Stockholm in July 1912, with a time of 10.6 seconds. He held this record for 8 years, until fellow countryman Jackson Scholz equalled his record in the same city. The USA continued to dominate the 100m event, winning both the 1912 and 1920 Olympic gold medals, but the 1924 Olympics saw Great Britain’s Harold Abrahams win the gold medal, with a time of 10.6 seconds. He was later depicted in the film Chariots of Fire and became the first European winner of the 100m sprint.

It wasn’t until 1932 that the world record was broken at the Olympics. USA’s Eddie Tolan claimed gold in a world record equalling time of 10.38 seconds, with runner up Ralph Metcalfe also given the same time. 4 years later, another American claimed gold in the 100m with a record time. Jesse Owens recorded a record time of 10.3 seconds, not only winning the gold medal, but also becoming the first black 100m Olympic gold medallist.

The 1964 Tokyo Games saw the USA’s Bob Hayes win Olympic gold, with a time of 10.06 seconds. Until these Games, world records were measured by officials with stopwatches, measured to the nearest tenth of a second. Fully automatic timing was used in Tokyo, but the times were given in the appearance of manual timing, meaning that Hayes’ time was converted to 10.0 seconds, despite the fact that the officials with stopwatches had recorded his time at 9.9 seconds. This unique method of measurement denied Hayes the record of being the first runner to run the 100m under 10 seconds.

In the 1968 Games at high altitude in Mexico City, Jim Hines became the first man to win Olympic gold in under 10 seconds.


Following on from confusion in the 1960s and the evolution of technology, electronic timing became mandatory in 1977 and the IAAF required fully automatic timing to the hundredth of a second for all events up to the 400m. Since this introduction, the record has been broken 12 times, however some of these records have been marred by prohibited drug use. The most famous of these came in the 1988 Olympic 100m final. For the first time ever, four of the eight competitors broke the ten second barrier with Canadian Ben Johnson crossing the line in 9.79 seconds, a then-world record. Within 55 hours of winning, Johnson had been stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. He was not the only one however, as five of the seven athletes in the race also went on to test positive for drugs. In the meantime, Carl Lewis was declared the 1988 gold medal winner and by default, became the first man to successfully defend the 100m title.

In 1999, Maurice Greene became the most recent American to hold the 100m world record, recording a time of 9.79. Since then, the event has been dominated by Jamaicans. At first, Asafa Powell set a world record of 9.77 in 2005 before going on to beat his own record three times. His record was beaten in May 2008 by none other than Usain Bolt. He’s gone on to beat his own world record twice more. The last being in August 2009 in Berlin, where Bolt set a time of 9.58 which is yet to be beaten.

Words by @DominicTrant