10 Historic Track and Field Records and Performances

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A Brief History

On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister became the first human to record a time of less than 4 minutes in the one mile run. The mythical barrier had been broken and history was made. Many records, some of which no longer stand, stay in the public’s imagination for the dramatic way they were set, the persons that set them, how long the record lasted, or the milestone nature of the feat. Here are 10 of the most memorable track and field record setting performances. Each feat listed here is so fantastic that it is extremely hard to rate them against each other. Feel free to tell us which performances you believe deserve mention.

Digging Deeper

10. Tie: Al Oerter, Discus and Carl Lewis, Long Jump.

These 2 wonderful athletes have the distinction of being the only Olympians to have won the gold medal in their event in 4 consecutive Olympics. That is some serious domination!

9. Florence “Flo-Jo” Joyner, 100 and 200 Meter Dash.

Her stunning times of 10.49 and 21.34 seconds in the 100 and 200 meter dashes have stood as the Women’s World Record since 1988 (26 years). How long they will stand is anyone’s guess, but 26 years is enough to make her performances among the best of all time.

8. Usain Bolt, 9.69 100 Meter Dash.

Although Bolt would eclipse his world record in the 2008 Olympics (9.58 seconds) it is that Olympic performance when he broke his own world record and won by a large (for that distance race) margin of .2 seconds. A stunned world watched Bolt breeze past everybody in the field and appear to effortlessly pull far ahead, and then slow down while celebrating his big win the rest of the way! With that performance setting a world record, speculation began immediately as to how fast his time might have been if he had run hard the entire race. Bolt won the Olympic Gold medals in the 100 and 200 meter dashes in the 2008 and the 2012 Olympics, the only man ever to achieve that.

7. Bob Beamon, 29’2 ½” Long Jump.

At the 1968 Olympic games Beamon became the only person to win the gold medal and set the world record in the long jump at the same time. His magnificent effort beat the old world record by 21 ¾”, a stunningly large margin when you consider the largest previous record margin was 6”! This record stood for almost 23 years, the second longest reign of a long jump record holder to Jesse Owens 25 year stretch.

6. Robert “Bullet Bob” Hayes 9.1 100 yard Dash.

Although Hayes had set the world record 100 yard dash in 1962 (9.2 seconds) it is the 9.1 second world record in 1963 that lasted 11 years that earned him the title of World’s Fastest Human for that time period. Of course, Hayes set other records in metric and English/US measured races, but it is the iconic 100 yard dash that he is remembered for. In Dallas, he is also remembered for scoring 71 touchdowns in his NFL career. He is the only NFL player to win a Gold Medal at the Olympics and also be on a Super Bowl winning team.

5. James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens 1936 Olympics.

Set on the international stage in Hitler’s capital of Berlin, Owens won the 100 and 200 meter dashes, the long jump, and the 4 X 400 meter relay. In the scenario of the Nazi claim of “Aryan” racial superiority, Owens provided a resounding counter argument. Note: Although Owens grew up in Cleveland, he was born in Alabama and the Cleveland in his name was not because of the city.

4. James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens 1935 Big Ten Championship.

At the 1935 Big Ten Track Meet competing for Ohio State, Owens not only won 4 events, he also set 3 world records and tied another! Knowledgeable track and field aficionados have called this the greatest performance in track and field ever. No other athlete has duplicated this mastery of the sport. The events Owens dominated that day were the 100 yard dash (tied world record) and 220 yard dash, 220 yard low hurdles, and long jump (setting world records in each). Owens record long jump of 26’8 ¼” stood for a breathtaking 25 years.

3. Jim Ryun, High School Record Mile Run.

Often remembered for his world record mile time of 3:51.1 which remained the world record for 8 years, Ryun was also the first high schooler in the world to break 4 minutes in the mile run, and his 1965 high school record of 3:55.3 stood for an unbelievable 36 years.

2. Jim Thorpe, 1912 Olympic Decathlon and Pentathlon.

This marvelous athlete was a Native-American (with some European ancestry) that grew up in the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma. In the 1912 Olympics he entered and won both the Decathlon and the Pentathlon, a feat never accomplished before or since. In an obvious choice, ABC Sports named him the Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century, and when the King of Sweden awarded Thorpe a special prize and said, “You sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe famously replied, “Thanks, King.” Along with his incredible Olympic performance, Thorpe played baseball, football, basketball and golf professionally, an impressive record in its own right.

1. Roger Bannister, 3:59.4 minute Mile Run.

Beating the seemingly impossible 4 minute mark at a time when the previous world record of 4:01.4 had stood for 9 years made Bannister an instant celebrity and a track and field legend. Incredibly, his new record was eclipsed only 46 days later. Before Britain went totally metric, and while the US still competed at distances of miles and yards, the mile run was the premier running event in those 2 countries. Amazingly, the 25 year old Bannister was already a junior medical doctor at the time of the great event.

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 Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Lawson, Gerald. World Record Breakers in Track & Field Athletics. Human Kinetics, 1997.

Stanbrough, Dr. Mark. Motivational Moments in Women’s Track and Field (Motivational Moments in Track and Field). Roho Publishing, 2013.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.