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Track & Field's 7 Forgotten World Record-Breakers

Amaar Abdul-NasirAnalyst IIJanuary 9, 2017

Track & Field's 7 Forgotten World Record-Breakers

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    In no sport is owning a record more prestigious—and at the same time, more fleeting—than track and field.

    Football and basketball players don't need records to establish greatness. Joe Montana doesn't own a single NFL passing record. Tim Duncan owns one obscure NBA record, for most blocks in a six-game playoff series.

    But there are still a lot of people who believe Montana and Duncan are the greatest players at their respective positions that their respective sports have ever seen.

    Baseball is a bit different, because MLB records have become so lofty in sports culture. Almost every sports fan knows the significance of 755 and 56 and 61 and 511, and two of those aren't even records anymore.

    But reaching legend status in baseball is more about milestones—3,000 hits or 300 wins or 500 home runs—than specific records.

    Track is different. The sport's two primary "legacy" chips are Olympic gold medals and world records, and so to many observers, a track star isn't a track star, whether it's Jesse Owens or Carl Lewis or Usain Bolt, without one or both of those accomplishments on their resume.

    Because track records are so vulnerable, however, many record-breakers have slipped under the radar. For one reason or another, whether their records stood for two months or are still the standard, their names don't resonate with fans and media despite their historic feats.

    Here are seven of track's forgotten world record-breakers.

Leroy Burrell (100 Meters)

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    A lot of great sprinters were overlooked and underrated during the Carl Lewis era of track—Linford Christie, Calvin Smith and Dennis Mitchell come to mind—but perhaps no one felt the flat-topped shadow of King Carl more than Burrell.

    It goes back to college. Burrell arrived at the University of Houston after Lewis had already become a legend there, and while he did break Lewis' school record in the 100-meter dash, Burrell sits below Lewis everywhere else in the Houston record books.

    As a pro in 1990 and '91, Burrell was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 100, right in the middle of Lewis' prime. But he never won an individual gold medal in an Olympics or World Championships and never reached anywhere near a superstar level of celebrity, thanks in part to Lewis.

    And two out of the three times Burrell won Olympic or World gold in the 4x100 relay, Lewis anchored the team.

    The first time Burrell broke Lewis' 100-meter world record—clocking 9.90 seconds at the '91 U.S. national championships—Lewis reclaimed it three months later on the bigger stage of the World Championships beating Burrell in the same race.

    Burrell broke the 100-meter record again in '94, running 9.85 seconds, which stood for two years until Donovan Bailey shaved 0.01 seconds off the mark at the '96 Olympics.

    Today, Burrell is the head track coach at Houston, but it would take a handful of national championships for him to even think of overtaking Lewis as the face of the program.

Tommie Smith (200 Meters, 400 Meters)

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    Everybody knows Smith as a symbolic figure of the American civil rights movement. His and teammate John Carlos' raised black-gloved fists on the medal stand at the '68 Olympics serving as a silent protest that remains one of the most famous images in sports history.

    But not everybody remembers that Smith was an amazing athlete. He was, after all, on top of that medal stand in Mexico City because he'd just won the 200-meter gold medal. Smith's time of 19.83 seconds wasn't just a world record, but the first time any man had broken the 20-second barrier in the 200.

    One year earlier, Smith has broken the 400-meter record with a 44.5-second run. In total, Smith set seven world records in his career, one of which—19.5 seconds in the straightaway 200—still stands.

Marita Koch (200 Meters, 400 Meters)

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    As an East German athlete whose career covered the '70s and '80s, Koch's accomplishments on the track naturally fall under suspicion. Back then, East Germany's self-contained, government-run PED testing policy was shady to say the least.

    Still, Koch's world records are officially legit, and she racked up 30 of 'em during a decorated career that included two Olympic medals and four World Championship medals.

    Koch set her first record in '77 when she ran 51.8 seconds in the indoor 400 meters. Her last was set in '85 when she ran 47.60 seconds in the outdoor 400.

    The fact that Koch's outdoor 400-mark still stands, however, is representative of a larger issue of controversy in women's track. To date, 13 women's world records still stand from the '80s, all set during an era before mandatory random drug testing was introduced.

    And because scientists believe PEDs impact a woman's athletic performance more drastically than a man, a lot of suspicious women's records aren't being challenged by today's (presumably) cleaner athletes.

    Breaking records is one reliable way for track to get mainstream attention—a major part of the reason Bolt is such a worldwide superstar now—but for a lot of women, it's seemingly impossible to do.

Dwight Stones (High Jump)

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    Stones is like the John Madden of track in that his announcing career has overshadowed a very solid run as a competitor (still waiting for the Dwight Stones Track & Field video game franchise to blow up, though).

    If you didn't know, Madden was a star offensive lineman in college whose career ended due to a knee injury in his first NFL training camp.

    Stones was a lot more successful as an athlete. He won bronze medals in the high jump at the '72 and '76 Olympics and set three world records in the event.

    The first happened in '73, when Stones cleared 7 feet, 6.5 inches and became the first flop-style jumper to break the world record. Stones went on to beat that mark twice, topping out at 7 feet, 7.5 inches in '76.

Kim Batten (400-Meter Hurdles)

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    The 400-meter hurdles may be the toughest event in track: Equal parts sprinting, endurance, jumping and strategy all crammed into one lap and less than one minute.

    Pay attention the next time you watch a track meet on TV and see if the post-race interviews with the 400 hurdles winners (male or female) aren't the most breathless.

    Batten is one of the best ever at the event, an Olympic silver medalist and World Championship gold medalist who held the 400-meter hurdles world record longer than any female in history.

    Batten's time of 52.61 seconds, set in '95, lasted for eight years and is still the third-fastest time ever.

    But when the names of America's greatest—let alone the world's greatest—female runners are discussed, Batten isn't mentioned as often as she should be.

Diane Leather (Mile)

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    Roger Bannister is an athletic icon. So much so that in the time it takes you to eat two pieces of toast, he overshadowed a 40-year career as an esteemed neurologist.

    Bannister, of course, was the first man to crack the four-minute mark in the mile run, which he accomplished on May 6, 1954.

    And while Bannister's biggest rival, John Landy, fell under that shadow—almost nobody talks about the fact that Landy beat Bannister's historic 3:59 by posting a 3:58 less than two months later—even Landy gets more recognition than Diane Leather.

    Just 23 days after Bannister's historic mile, Leather broke another significant barrier by running the first mile under five minutes for a woman.

    That was the second time Leather had set the world record, and she broke her own mark two more times. When she lowered the record to 4:45 in '55, that stood for seven years.

Donovan Bailey (100 Meters)

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    For a man who broke sports' most glittering record on sports' biggest stage, Bailey has become a relatively obscure figure over time.

    The Jamaican-born Canadian was like the '90s version of Usain Bolt in terms of personality and competitive swagger. And Bailey was just as talented.

    He won gold medals in the 100-meter dash and 4x100 relay at the '95 World Championships and repeated the feat the next year at the Olympics in Atlanta.

    In the 100-meter final, probably the most-watched event of every Olympics, Bailey ran a world-record time of 9.84 seconds.

    Bailey's top-end speed that night was recorded at 27.07 miles per hour, officially the fastest a human being has ever run. And yet the '96 Olympic still belonged to Michael Johnson, whose unprecedented 200/400 double gave him the unofficial "World's Fastest Man" title.

    So a few months later, Bailey challenged Johnson to a 150-meter race, one-on-one and beat him.

    But then before Bailey could really become a superstar on the level of Lewis or Bolt, injuries got in the way. At the '97 World Championships he took silver in the 100 and gold in the 4x100 relay, but a torn Achilles tendon in '98 basically ended his reign at the top.

    Bailey's 100-meter world record stood for three years until Maurice Greene broke it with a time of 9.79 seconds.

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