My list is purely subjective, but candidates must have participated in an Olympics and, in most cases, won a gold medal; so Jeremy Wariner is eligible, but Tyson Gay is not. As you will see, the United States has feasted on some events and taken a back seat in others.
Many sports arguments comparing players from different eras rage on and on because of variables like quality of competition and changes in technology, but in track and field the time is the time, the height is the height and the distance is the distance. However, there are certain concessions must be made to history, and in some cases I have done just that.
Without further ado:
In the glamour boy category, we have 15 gold medalists to choose from and plenty of world record holders. I would love to go with Jesse Owens on historic value alone. Maurice Greene would be the best on pure speed (9.79 in Sydney). In 1968, Jim Hines set a world record that stood for 15 years, but my choice is Carl Lewis. He won back-to-back gold in 1984 and 1988, set multiple world records, and he was the ultimate diva in the prima diva track event.
Here we have another crowded field, including Owens and Lewis again. Athens 2004 gold medalist Shawn Crawford scores high on entertainment and style points, and Jackson Sholz gets the Academy Award for Chariots of Fire. It's tough to go against current world record holder Michael Johnson, but my pick is Tommie Smith, who set the world record in Mexico City in 1968 and gave us an enduring image on the medal stand.
Americans have won six straight gold medals in this event. Reigning champ Jeremy Wariner hopes to become the second man to repeat as champ, but I'll take Michael Johnson because of the world record, the gold shoes and because, like Johnson, people have always told me I run funny.
No American has won this event since Dave Wottle forgot to take his hat off atop the medal stand during the national anthem in 1972 (this phenomenon is known as the "Curse of the Visor" in track and field circles, or should I say ovals). I'll go with "Marvelous Mal" Whitfield, who went back-to-back in 1948 and 1952, just edging out Mel Sheppard's gold and silver in 1908 and 1912, respectively.
Pickings are getting really slim as the races get longer. The U.S. hasn't medaled since Jim Ryun's silver in 1968 - losing to one of my all-time favorite Olympic names, Kip Keino of Kenya. Ryun, a much-decorated former world record holder, would be a worthy selection, but I am going back 100 years to Mel Sheppard, who won three golds at the 1908 Games in London.
This one is easy. On a rainy track in Tokyo in 1964, Bob Schul became the first American to win a gold medal in the 5000 meters. U.S. runners have only won three Olympic medals in the entire history of this event.
Another easy pick. Billy Mills ran the race of his life in 1964 Tokyo Games, beating his personal best time by a remarkable 50 seconds and outsprinting world record holder Ron Clarke of Australia. The U.S. has won a total of five Olympic medals in the men's 5000 and 10,000 meters, and the two golds came in Tokyo. Hmmm.
I thought about recognizing the unprecedented and heretofore unmatched 1-2-3 sweep in the 1904 St. Louis Games by Thomas Hicks, Albert Coray and Arthur Newton, but none of those guys won gold and silver, as Frank Shorter did in 1972 and 1976.
110 meter hurdles
Lots of Stars and Stripes on the medal stand in this event over the years. You would think it's important to jump over the hurdles cleanly to win, but Roger Kingdom won gold in 1984 and 1988, seeming to knock over as many as he cleared, and he set world records. I guess that is enough to distinguish him from Lee Calhoun, the only other back-to-back winner.
400 meter hurdles
Crowded field again, but Edwin Moses dominated the event for ten years, winning 122 straight races. He won gold medals in 1976 and 1984, missing out on a third because of the U.S. boycott in 1980.
3000 meter steeplechase
The only American to win a gold medal in this event is Horace Ashenfelter at the 1952 Games in Helsinki. Ashenfelter was also an FBI agent at the time; pretty sure he passed the physical.
4 X 100 meter relay
The U.S. has won this event 15 times, but rather than pick a team from one year, I'll draft my top four: Maurice Greene, Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens and Jim Hines. Tyson Gay becomes eligible if he wins this year, and so does Justin Gatlin after he has served his suspension.
4 X 400 meter relay
In another relay America has dominated, I'll take Michael Johnson, Jeremy Wariner, Butch Reynolds and Lee Evans. The first two we've discussed already; Reynolds was ranked first or second in the world from 1987 - 1990, and in Mexico City, Evans set a world record that stood for 20 years.
No American has ever won a 20 km walk in the Olympics, but Dave Romansky did crack the top 10 in world rankings in 1970. In the 50 km, Larry Young is the only U.S. medalist; he won bronze in 1968 and 1972.
Coming up next, the field and multisport events.
Photo via Getty Images
- Jeremy Wariner
- Michael Johnson