Top 50 United States Olympic Track and Field Moments
The United States absolutely owns Olympic track and field.
That may sound incredibly brash, but just like in the stadium, it's the numbers that matter.
Behind those numbers, however, are wonderful stories of American history told through the lens of the Olympic sport that is simply referred to as "Athletics."
Here are the top 50 Olympic moments in United States track and field...
50. Americans Sweep 400 Meters in 2008
Jeremy Wariner may have fallen well short of his expectations, but the American men triumphed as a group by sweeping the individual 400 meters in Beijing. LaShawn Merritt beat Wariner, the defending champion, by an entire second at 43.75. Perhaps the most crucial performance came from David Neville, who laid out in full torpedo-mode to take the bronze. It was the fifth American sweep in the event's history.
49. Galen Rupp Ends the Distance Drought in 2012
For years, it was one of the most stunning and sobering truths in American athletics.
Entering London, it'd been 44 years since an American man had medaled in an Olympic track event longer than 800 meters (marathon excluded).
Forty four years. Zero medals.
Oregon native Galen Rupp, long regarded as a scion of the once-proud American distance tradition, ended that ignominious streak by finishing second in the men's 10,000 meter run behind training partner and British hero Mo Farah.
Later that same week, Leo Manzano followed up with a silver in the Metric Mile.
After years in the muck, American distance running was relevant again on the Olympic stage.
48. Kraenzlein Wins Four Golds in 1900
Al Kraenzlein won four individual track and field golds at the 1900 Games in Paris, a feat which has not been matched by any athlete in a single Olympiad. Kraenzlein, 23, won the long jump by a centimeter, also winning the 110-meter hurdles, 200-meter hurdles and 60-meter dash.
47. John Taylor Becomes First African American to Win Gold
Taylor had his sights set on winning the 400 meters, but he ran a subpar race that included a debate over interference by Americans John Carpenter and William Robbins against British runner Wyndham Halswelle. A re-run was ordered, with Carpenter disqualified, but the Americans refused to participate, and Taylor missed a second shot at individual gold.
The American victory in the 1,600-meter medley relay, however, put Taylor in the history books as a pioneering figure for black athletes in the Olympics.
46. Evelyn Ashford Runs Stellar 4x100 Leg in 1988
Evelyn Ashford won three consecutive gold medals as a member of the U.S. women's 4x100-meter relay team. The second of the three, in Seoul, required her to come from behind against East Germany in a heroic anchor leg.
Ashford had an impressively long career, finishing fifth in Munich as a 19-year-old in 1976. She won gold in the 100 meters in Los Angeles and won her final medal at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
45. Young Sets 400-Hurdles Record in 1992
Kevin Young may have clipped the final hurdle, but it was not going to stop him in Barcelona. Young cruised to victory in the 400-meter hurdles, beating Edwin Moses' world record with a time of 46.78 seconds. The record still stands today.
44. Dragila Wins First Women's Pole Vault in 2000
Women's pole vault was added to the Olympic menu in 2000, and Stacy Dragila was the first one to order it up. Dragila missed her first two attempts at 14 feet, 9 inches, but cleared on the third before moving on to win the event with a vault of 15'1". After that, she almost broke her own world record with an attempt at 15'2".
Soon after her triumph in Sydney, she found herself on the Wheaties box.
43. Charles Austin Wins High Jump in 1996
Charles Austin, who had battled all the way back from major knee surgery in 1994, cleared an Olympic record 7 feet, 10 inches to win the high jump in 1996. Austin was the first American to win the event since Dick Fosbury's legendary leap in 1968, and his record still stands.
No American has won the medal since Austin did it; however, the United States heads into London with hopes set on world champion Jesse Williams.
42. Al Joyner Joins His Sister as a Medalist
It was a family affair for the Joyners at the L.A. Coliseum in 1984. Al Joyner won the gold medal in the men's triple jump, while his sister—Jackie Joyner-Kersee—later took silver in the heptathlon.
41. O'Brien Saves Face by Winning Decathlon in 1996
Remember the "Dan and Dave" Reebok commercials leading up to the 1992 Olympics?
While trying to sell us shoes, they were also pumping up the rivalry between two American decathletes who had gold medal hopes. Well, Dan O'Brien choked—big time. O'Brien failed to even make the team at the Olympic trials, choosing to skip the lower heights at pole vault before failing at the higher levels. The commercials switched to showing him rooting on Dave, who went on to win bronze.
In 1996, O'Brien made up for it by winning the decathlon on home soil in Atlanta.
40. Roger Kingdom Defends 110-Meter Hurdles Gold in 1988
Like a hooded superhero, Roger Kingdom flew past the field to defend his 110-meter hurdles title at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
The 6'3", 190-pound specimen ran a time of 12.98 seconds to break his 1984 Olympic record of 13.20 seconds. He became the second man in history to defend his title in the event, following Lee Calhoun in 1956 and 1960.
39. 'Marvelous Mal' Whitfield Defends 800-Meter Title in 1952
Air Force Sergeant Mal Whitfield was known as "Marvelous Mal" thanks to a stellar running career. He became the first man to defend his 800-meter gold medal when he ran a 1:49.2 at the 1952 Helsinki Games, matching his Olympic record from 1948. He served as a tail-gunner in the Korean War between his victories.
Peter Snell of New Zealand is the only other man to win back-to-back titles in the event.
38. Woodruff Wins a Stop-and-Go 800 Meters in 1936
John Woodruff's unorthodox running style morphed into an unorthodox victory in the 800 meters at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Woodruff, one of 18 African Americans (including Jesse Owens) competing on Nazi turf, found himself boxed in in the second half of the race. As a result, he slowed down, moved out to the third lane and surged back to win. It was the slowest winning Olympic time in 16 years.
"I stopped," he said simply in a 2007 interview.
Woodruff returned home with an Oak Tree from Berlin, which he planted in his hometown and now stands 60 feet tall.
37. Rafer Johnson Outduels C.K. Yang in the 1960 Decathlon
Rafer Johnson was not given the honor of lighting the Olympic torch at the 1984 Games for nothing.
Twenty-four years earlier, Johnson defeated UCLA teammate C.K. Yang of Taiwan in a neck-and-neck showdown. It came down to the final event, the 1,500 meters, in which Yang would have to beat his friend and rival by 10 seconds. Instead, Johnson ran a personal best to take gold.
“I figured I had an outside chance to win after nine events until I found out Rafe and I were in the same 1500 heat," Yang recalled. “ I knew he would never let go of me unless he collapsed. I knew he would win. He is that way.”
36. Dillard Sprints, Leaps to Wins in 1948 and 1952
Harrison "Bones" Dillard was inspired to be an Olympian after witnessing a Cleveland parade for Jesse Owens celebrating the 1936 Olympics.
Dillard, who would befriend Owens, picked up an upset win in the 100-meter dash at the 1948 London Games, also taking gold as a member of the 4x100 relay squad. He followed that up with an Olympic record and gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles in Helsinki, adding another 4x100 relay gold as well.
Dillard remains the only man to win gold in the high hurdles and the 100 meters.
35. Calhoun Wins Another 110 Hurdles in 1956
Lee Calhoun beat his previous best in the 110-meter high hurdles by nearly a full second when he ran it in 13.5 seconds, setting an Olympic record in 1956. He beat heavily favored teammate Jack Davis in a photo finish.
Calhoun was the first man to defend his title in the event when he recorded a time of 13.4 seconds, winning by just one-hundredth of a second over teammate Willie May.
34. Allyson Felix Breaks Through in 2012
After eight years of Olympic frustration, Allyson Felix won her first individual gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
It was a cathartic victory for the woman many consider one of the most gifted sprinters in American history, made even sweeter by the fact that it came in her signature event, the 200-meter sprint.
That weight off her shoulders, Felix went on to have one of the most prolific Games in modern history. With additional gold medals in the 4x100 and 4x400 relays, the Los Angeles native became one of just a handful of runners to win Olympic titles at all three sprint distances.
33. Schul Wins Only American 5,000-Meter Title in 1964
Bob Schul was known for his kick at the end of races, and it was on full display in a rain-soaked Olympic 5,000 meters in Tokyo. Schul, who had predicted he would win the race, came from 10 meters behind leader Michel Jazy of France on the last lap. His final lap of 54.8 was too much for Jazy to hold off, as Schul became the first and only American to ever win the event.
Not bad for a guy who nearly died from asthma in his youth.
32. Bob Richards Defends Pole Vault Title in 1956
Bob Richards is the only man to win two consecutive Olympic pole vault titles. In 1952 he set an Olympic record en route to winning gold, then he did the same four years later in Melbourne. He was the second pole-vaulter to clear 15 feet.
Richards was also the first athlete to grace the front of a Wheaties box.
31. U.S. 4x400 Men Set Olympic Record in 2008
The American men's 4x400-meter relay team of LaShawn Merritt, Angelo Taylor, David Neville and Jeremy Wariner set an Olympic record of 55.39 seconds in the Beijing Bird's Nest, dominating a race that the Americans have traditionally dominated. The men also swept the individual 400-meter competition.
It was the eighth consecutive 4x400 gold medal for the United States and helped ease the pain of a dropped baton in the 4x100.
30. Billy Mills Grabs 10,000-Meter Upset in 1964
Billy Mills' qualifying time in the 10,000 meters was nearly a minute slower than race-favorite Ron Clarke of Australia. Mills, a Marine lieutenant, took on a field loaded with big-time runners and ended up winning in an Olympic record time of 28:24.4.
Not only was it the first and only 10,000 meter title for the United States, it was also Mills' best time by 50 seconds.
29. Garrett Gives Discus a Try and Wins in 1896
The Greeks were expected to defend their home turf in the throwing event at the inaugural modern Olympics. They were the most graceful and experienced of discus throwers, and American Bob Garrett had never even seen a regulation discus before he arrived.
"I got into the discus thing never figuring I'd do anything but finish an absolute last," he told the Baltimore Sun in 1956.
Instead, Garrett won the event as well as the shot put, taking silver in the high jump and long jump.
28. Lewis Beats Own 100-Meter Record in 1988
Carl Lewis won gold in the long jump, 200 meters and 100 meters at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, but his triple-win wasn't achieved until Ben Johnson was disqualified from the 100 meters for doping. Lewis' time of 9.92 seconds was good enough to break his own world record, while Johnson's 9.79 was erased.
Johnson, a Canadian, admitted to doping but accused the Americans of sabotaging him and said he was "lucky to get out of Seoul alive."
27. Evans Sets 400-Meter Record in 1968
Lee Evans secured two of the 12 gold track and field medals won by American men in Mexico City. First, he beat his own world record in the 400 meters with a time of 43.86 seconds, which would not be beaten until 1988. He then anchored the 4x400-meter relay team which set a world record that stood for two decades.
26. Hines Sets 100-Meter World Record in 1968
Earlier in 1968, Jim Hines had run the first-ever 100 meters under 10 seconds in an AAU meet. He did so again in Mexico City, setting a world record at 9.95 seconds. He also anchored the 4x100 relay team that set a world record. He was in third place when the baton was handed off but pushed to the front of the pack for victory.
25. Jones Hauls in Five Medals at 2000 Games
Obviously, this would have been near the top of the list if not for Marion Jones admitting to doping, doing jail time and having to give all of her medals back. Despite the tragic ending to the story, what a story it was in 2000 when she won gold in the 100 meters, 200 meters, 4x100 and 4x400 to go along with a bronze in the long jump.
Suspicions of doping have run rampant (pardon the pun) in track and field. Jones' legacy is forever tarnished, but her 2000 performance was unforgettable.
24. Eddie Tolan Doubles Up in 1932
In its time, Eddie Tolan's performance at the 1932 Olympics was the greatest sprinting double-up ever.
Tolan tied the world record of 10.3 seconds to win the 100 meters by a narrow margin, and he then set an Olympic record to win the 200 meters. He defeated Ralph Metcalfe in both events despite losing to the fellow American in both races at the trials.
23. Wyomia Tyus Defends 100-Meter Title in 1968
Wyomia Tyus became the first athlete to defend her 100-meter gold medal when she won in Mexico City with a world record of of 11.0 seconds in 1968.
Tyus, a Tennessee State teammate of fellow Olympic legend Wilma Rudolph (see No. 9), won in Tokyo four years earlier at the age of 19. She also set a world record in that race, crossing the line in 11.2 seconds.
22. Wottle Has Incredible 800-Meter Finish in 1972
You've got to watch this one.
Dave Wottle was in last place with half a lap to go in the men's 800 meters in Munich. Somehow, the hat-wearing American found an extra gear and stormed past the entire pack to beat Soviet favorite Yevgeniy Arzhanov by three-hundredths of a second. Wottle didn't even have a world ranking the year before the Olympics.
21. Bob Hayes Sprints to Double-Gold in 1964
NFL Hall-of-Famer Bob Hayes was first a champion sprinter who was the world's fastest human in the 1960s. Hayes nearly broke the 10-second mark to win the 100 meter final in 1964, and his leg in the 4x100 (estimated to be as low as 8.8 seconds) helped the squad set a world record.
“How fast was Bob Hayes? There. Want to see how fast he was again? Blink. That’s how fast Bob was,” said fellow cornerback Lem Barney.
20. U.S. Men Own Melbourne in 1956
A total of 32 track and field medals were draped over the necks of American men at the 1956 games in Melbourne. Led by Bobby Morrow's trifecta in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 4x100 relay, the U.S. male contingent won 15 of the 24 events contested.
The 4x100 relay team set a world record, and the U.S. swept all of the medals in four different events.
19. Flo-Jo Dominates with Three Golds in 1988
The late Florence Griffith-Joyner broke her own world record in the 200 meters by two-tenths of a second at the 1988 Games in Seoul. She also won the 100 meters and took gold in the 4x100 relay with a silver in the 4x400.
Unfortunately, "Flo-Jo" was dogged by doping allegations despite never failing a test. She passed away at age 38 from an epileptic seizure in her sleep.
18. Moses Wins Another 400-Hurdles Gold in 1984
Edwin Moses came out of relative obscurity to set a world record of 47.64 seconds at the 1976 Olympics. The Morehouse College graduate missed the chance to defend his crown due the boycott of the 1980 games, but he returned to triumph in 1984.
17. Joan Benoit Wins First Women's Marathon in 1984
Joan Benoit was just 17 days out of knee surgery when she won the 1984 Olympic trials to qualify for the first Olympic women's marathon.
The 27-year-old would not disappoint in L.A., winning by a healthy margin and taking a memorable victory lap around the Coliseum, still at a good pace. She's still running, having recently completed the Boston Marathon with her daughter.
16. Devers Defends 100-Meter Title in 1996
15. Lewis Leaps to Fourth Long Jump Gold in 1996
He was 35 and had barely qualified for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Then he barely qualified for the final.
Somehow, Carl Lewis mustered up a leap of 27 feet, 10 3/4 inches on his third attempt in the finals to win his fourth consecutive gold medal in the event. He was only the second athlete to ever four-peat in an Olympics, and his ninth and final gold medal tied him with swimmer Mark Spitz for the most in history.
He went on to be named "Athlete of the Century" by the International Olympic Committee.
14. Mathias Wins Back-to-Back Decathlon Gold
Bob Mathias had quite a life. He was a football star at Stanford, an actor, a Marine captain and a congressman. His greatest role, however, may have been as an Olympian.
Mathias was just 17 years old at the 1948 London Games, where he won the decathlon, having never competed in the event before that year. When asked how he might celebrate, he said, "I'll start shaving, I guess."
Four years later at the ripe old age of 21, he defended his title with an astounding margin of victory—912 points.
13. Shorter Takes Marathon in 1972
Frank Shorter achieved an incredibly rare feat for an American at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The mustachioed marathoner, who was actually born in Munich, became the first United States competitor to win the event in 64 years, blowing away the field by over two minutes.
No American has won the event since. In fact, Meb Keflezighi (silver in 2004) is the only American to reach the podium.
12. Fosbury Flops to High-Jump Gold in 1968
Rick Barry did it differently than anyone else by shooting his free throws underhanded. The difference between Barry and high-jumper Dick Fosbury is that everyone followed Fosbury's lead.
No one had ever really seen an elite high-jumper go over the bar backwards. Instead, jumpers would use the straddle technique or roll over it. In Mexico City, Fosbury used his revolutionary technique to set an Olympic record at 7 feet, 4 1/4 inches.
The Fosbury Flop became the undisputed best technique for high jumpers, and you won't see any straddles in London.
11. Oerter Wins Four Straight Discus Titles
At age 20 and ranked sixth in the world heading into the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Al Oerter was a long shot to win the discus. He hurled a long shot as well, beating the field by over five feet with a heave of 184 feet, 10 1/2 inches, a new Olympic record.
A near-fatal car accident couldn't stop him from upsetting teammate Richard "Rink" Babka in 1960. Torn cartilage in his ribs couldn't stop him from another gold and Olympic record in 1964. He was once again an underdog in 1968, injured and wearing both a leg and neck brace. He won, of course, and became the first Olympian to four-peat in any event.
10. Bruce Jenner Sets Decathlon Record in 1976
Long before he was a reality TV stepdad, Bruce Jenner was a real-life hero.
After finishing 10th in the Munich Olympics, Jenner's remarkable work ethic led to a world record in the decathlon in Montreal. He trailed after seven events, but he won the pole vault and javelin before running a great race in the 1500 meters to seal the record with 8,618 points.
He was named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year and earned the James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the country.
9. Rudolph Wins Three Golds in 1960
One of the greatest moments of a great movie is when young Forrest Gump’s leg braces fall to pieces as he sprints away from bullies on an Alabama dirt road. From there on, as he said, “I… Was… Running!”
Wilma Rudolph was the non-fiction version.
The 20th of 22 siblings, Rudolph wore a brace on her leg as a child due to it being twisted by the Polio virus. She got rid of the brace and in Rome became the first woman to ever win three track and field gold medals. Rudolph won the 100 meters (11.0 seconds) and set an Olympic record in the 200 meters (23.2 seconds). The third gold came with a world record time of 44.5 seconds in the 4x100-meter relay.
8. Smith and Carlos Win Sprint Medals in 1968
Overshadowed by the fist-raising statement on the medal stand is the fact that Tommie Smith set a world record in the 200 meters even though he started his celebration about six steps before the finish line.
Smith's time of 19.83 seconds won by a 0.23-second margin and was the best mark in the world for over a decade. Carlos, his teammate at San Jose State, took the bronze.
The two then took to the podium and raised their fists. The rest is history.
7. Joyner-Kersee Sets Heptathlon World Record in 1988
Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s performance in Seoul has yet to be matched.
She remains the only American woman to ever win Olympic gold in the long jump, and her heptathlon total of 7,291 is a world record that still stands. She holds the top six scores ever recorded in the heptathlon and defended her title in Barcelona in 1992. After losing by a mere five points in Los Angeles in 1984, Seoul was sweet for the Sports Illustrated greatest female athlete of the 20th century.
“She’s the greatest multi-event athlete ever, man or woman,” said 1976 decathlon gold medalist Bruce Jenner.
6. Beamon Topples Long Jump Record in 1968
Bob Beamon was so overwhelmed by what he had done that he had a seizure in the middle of the stadium.
No one had jumped 28 feet heading into the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The 22-year-old Beamon soared 29 feet, 2 1/2 inches on his first leap—past the distance on the measuring implement. It took 15 minutes for the official measurement to be recorded.
"Compared to this jump, we are as children," said Soviet competitor Igor Ter-Ovanesyan.
The record stood until Mike Powell out-dueled Carl Lewis and broke the record at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo.
5. Babe Zaharias Wins Two Golds and a Silver in 1932
Babe Didrikson Zaharias is the greatest female athlete of all time thanks to her versatility.
A true Renaissance woman, she was an All-American basketball player and one of the most dominant female golfers in history. Byron Nelson would call her one of the 10 greatest golfers in history. Heck, she was even an accomplished bowler, Vaudeville actress and seamstress (yes, she competed in sewing).
Her coming-out party, however, was at the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1932.
In an unorthodox combination of events to medal in, she took gold in the 80-meter hurdles and the javelin, also bringing home silver in the high jump jump. She shattered stereotypes of women in sports and has since been named the second-greatest female athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated. Her performance may have ended up even higher on this list had women been allowed to compete in more than three Olympic events at the time.
4. Thorpe Dominates Decathlon, Heptathlon in 1912
King Gustav V of Sweden said it all.
“You sir, are the greatest athlete in the world. I would consider it an honor to shake your hand.”
In 1912, Jim Thorpe sailed to Sweden and into history as the greatest athlete of the 20th century. The 25-year-old Native American shattered world records en route to gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon. He finished first in nine of the 15 events that made up the two competitions, and the only pentathlon event he didn’t win was the javelin, which he had never even participated in before 1912.
Thorpe, who played professional baseball, football and basketball, would have his medals tragically revoked a year later after the Amateur Athletic Union discovered that Thorpe had played minor league baseball for meager pay in 1909-10. Friends and family members said that Thorpe was crushed by losing his medals and never fully recovered.
In 1983, nearly 40 years after his death, Thorpe’s wins were reinstated, and his children were presented with commemorative medals.
3. Michael Johnson Takes 400 and 200 in 1996
Can you imagine if Michael Johnson’s medals didn’t end up matching those shoes?
Well, they did, and Johnson’s arms-out, mouth-open celebration after shattering his own world record in the 200 meters instantly became one of the most memorable images in Olympic history.
Running in his unorthodox straight-up style, Johnson first won the 400 meters by nearly a second in 43.49 seconds, which set an Olympic record. His performance in the 200, however, was his defining moment in Atlanta. His mark of 19.32 beat his month-old record of 19.66 easily. It was the largest-ever margin of improvement over an existing world record.
Johnson is the only man to ever win gold in the 400 meters and 200 meters, and he became the only man to defend a 400 meter title four years later in Sydney.
2. Carl Lewis Achieves Quadruple-Gold in 1984
Lewis had Jesse Owens’ four golds on his mind heading into the 1984 games, and he left the L.A. Coliseum having matched Owens with relative ease. Lewis ran the 100-meter dash in 9.99 seconds, winning by two-tenths. He won the long jump by a foot and set an Olympic record of 9.80 seconds in the 200.
The crowning moment came in the 4x100 relay, in which the Americans were the overwhelming favorites. Lewis anchored the team, winning by nearly 15 meters and setting a world record of 37.83 seconds.
“Without the inspiration that Jesse Owens was able to give me, I wouldn’t be here today,” he said in the ABC interview after the medal ceremony.
Perhaps you’ve figured out the top moment by now…
1. Jesse Owens Wins Four Golds in Berlin
It just can't get any better than this one.
The son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, Jesse Owens stepped into Berlin—the heart of Nazi Germany—and won gold medals in the 100-meter dash, the 200 meters, long jump and 4x100-meter relay. No man would win four track and field golds in one Olympiad until Carl Lewis did so 48 years later in Los Angeles.
Owens ran the 100 in 10.3 seconds, tying a world record that would stand for 20 more years. His 200-meter mark of 20.7 seconds and long jump of 26 feet, 5 1/2 inches were Olympic records, and he anchored a 4x100 time that set a world record of 39.8 seconds. That record would also stand for 20 years.
Owens' victories on the world stage defied Chancellor Adolf Hitler's theory of an Aryan master race.
What made the moment even greater was the presence of Luz Long, who took the silver medal. Long, a blond-haired and blue-eyed German, was the first person to congratulate Owens.
"It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler," Owens said. "You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace.”