The U.S. has had many great moments on the Olympic track. Take a look back at some of the greatest U.S. track and field stars.
Born on May 28, 1888, in Shawnee, Okla., Jim Thorpe is considered one of the greatest track and field athletes of all-time. When he attended the Olympics in 1912, he took first place in the decathlon and the pentathlon, as well as fourth place in the high jump and seventh in the long jump. However, Thorpe was caught playing semi-pro baseball in 1911, so his medals were revoked from his possession up until nearly 30 years after his death. After Stockholm, Thorpe played professional football and baseball, making his way into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983.
German dictator Adolf Hitler attained a propaganda success when it was decided that the 1936 Olympics would be hosted in Berlin. During the Games that year, track and field contender from Danville, Ala., Jesse Owens, came out on top. When Owens won four gold medals in the long jump, 100m, 200m and the 400m relay, Hitler stormed out of the Olympic Stadium so he wouldn’t have to congratulate Owens on his victories. Despite Hitler’s dissatisfaction with the achievements the athlete made, Owens proved himself to be one of the greatest track and field athletes of all-time.
Coming from the small town of Tulare, Calif., 17-year-old Robert “Bob” Mathias made a big name for himself at the 1948 Olympic Games. He was not only the youngest in history to win the gold medal in the decathlon, but also earned himself the title of the nation’s top amateur athlete when he received the 1948 Sullivan Award. Mathias wasn’t just successful in the Olympic Games, but in football as well. When he attended Stanford University, he played as the team’s star fullback. Consequently, when he scored himself another spot at the Olympics in 1952, Mathias also became the first person to compete in both the Olympic Games and the Rose Bowl.
When she was just a young girl, Wilma Rudolph’s doctor told her that her paralysis due to polio would prevent her from ever walking again. Despite these claims, Rudolph always had faith that she would prove her doctor wrong. One bronze and three gold medals later, Rudolph did just that. After competing in the 1960 Olympics, where she placed third in the 400m relay and first in the 100m, 200m, and 400m relays, Rudolph became one of the greatest track and field athletes of all-time.
After excelling in football, baseball and basketball in both high school and college, Rafer Johnson took his athletic talents to the track. Johnson first qualified for the Olympic Games in 1956, where he took home a silver medal in the decathlon. The track star qualified again in 1960, where this time he took home the gold. In 1960, Johnson received the Sullivan Award as the nation’s best amateur athlete. From there he began to work for President John Kennedy’s Peace Corps and later became an actor and successful businessman.
Born in the small town of Griffin, Ga., in 1945, the talents of Wyomia Tyus certainly stood out on the track. In 1964, Tyus earned a spot at the Olympic Games where she placed second in the 4x400m relay and first in the 100m. In 1968, Tyus competed in the Games again, this time placing sixth in the 200m, and first in both the 400m relay and 100m.
High jumper Dick Fosbury is considered one of the all-time greatest track and field athletes after developing what is now known as the “Fosbury Flop.” Fosbury first started high jumping when he was in high school. At that time there were only three specific styles being used in the event: the scissors, the straddle, and the belly roll. However, when Fosbury started going over the bar headfirst and backwards while positioning his body parallel with the ground, his jump height improved by nearly a foot. In 1968, Fosbury set an Olympic record using his new technique. To the surprise of many, Fosbury reached a jaw-dropping height of 2.24 meters. Fosbury’s “Flop” technique became increasingly popular and is now the approach of choice around the world.
In high school, Bruce Jenner was a sports all-star. He played football, basketball, and track; however he truly proved his proficiency in athletics when he won the New York State championships in two events and received a football scholarship to Graceland College in Iowa that same year. Despite injuring his knee on the gridiron, Jenner would not give up until he made it to the Olympic Games. In 1972 and 1976, Jenner did just that. Competing in the decathlon both years, Jenner took 10th place in 1972 and first place in 1976. His accomplishments even landed him a spot on the cover of a Wheaties cereal box. Today, Bruce Jenner poses as a television personality, motivational speaker, actor, and an author.
Track and field star Carl Lewis has a remarkable number of achievements in both jumping and running. His talents are unsurpassed, as he is just one of two athletes to win nine Olympic medals. Lewis first got into athletics when he was in high school. By his senior year, his long jumping skills earned him the rank of No. 5 in the world. The next year, he qualified for his first Olympic Games. Although the Games were not held until 1984, Lewis did not stop working hard. For three years he held the title of No. 1 in the world in both the long jump and the 100-meter relay. When it was finally time for the Games to begin, Lewis showcased his talents yet again. In 1984, he won gold medals in the long jump, the 100m, 200m and the 4x100m relay. When he competed again in 1988 he placed first in the long jump and 4x100m relay. He also placed second in the 200m relay. His third time at the Games, he placed first in the long jump yet again, and took home the gold in the 400m relay. At the age of 35, Lewis competed in the Games one more time. There he won the long jump for his fourth and final time.
Known for her long, flashy nails and her one-legged running outfits, Florence Griffith Joyner, or “Flo-Jo,” is easily considered one of the all-time greatest track and field athletes. “Flo-Jo” has achieved greatness both on and off of the track. During her first Olympic Games, she placed second in the 200m relay. When she competed again in 1988, she placed second in the 1,600m relay, and took home gold medals in three events: the 100m, 200m, and 400m. Outside of the Games, Griffith- Joyner served as the co-chair of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. She was a spokeswoman for the board who shared her love for athletics with people all around the nation.
Track and field athlete Gail Devers had more hurdles to overcome then just those on the track. In 1991, Devers was diagnosed with Graves disease, an autoimmune system disorder where one’s thyroid is overactive. Her illness even put her at risk of having both of her feet amputated. After radiation treatment, Devers recovered and was finally able to get back on the track. At the 1992 Olympic Games, Devers placed fourth in the 100m hurdles and first in the 100m relay. When she competed again in 1996, she placed first in both of her events, the 100m hurdles and the 100m relay.
Before competing in the 1996 Olympic Games, Michael Johnson was primarily recognized as just a 200m sprinter. However, Johnson showed the world he was more than that. In 1996, Johnson became the only male in history to win Olympic gold medals in not only the 200m, but the 400m as well. Today, Johnson is named the best 200m and 400m sprinter in the history of track and field. In 2000, Johnson competed in the Games a second time, placing first in both the 200m and 4x400m.
Jackie Joyner Kersee
Four-time Olympian, Jackie Joyner Kersee, has achieved more than just awards and medals; she also holds five world, and three American, records. At her first Olympics in 1984, she placed second in the heptathlon. In 1988, she place first in both the heptathlon and the long jump. In 1992, she placed third in the long jump and first in the heptathlon. At her final Games in 1996, she placed third in the long jump, coming in at 7.00m. Joyner Kersee’s world records are all held in the heptathlon, and her American records are in both the long jump and the 50m hurdles.