The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

My Favorite All Time Sprinters

Sep 28th, 2012
5:54 pm PDT

Sprinter ShadowIt’s that time of year for lists – typically “Top Ten” lists. And I am in the process of doing research to put together my end of the year lists. While I’m doing that however – there is lots of data to go over – I thought I would start by sharing some of my “Favorites” in list form. Favorite hurdlers, middle distance runners, field event athletes, etc.

Since the world’s most recognizable athletes right now are sprinters – Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay, Yohan Blake, Justin Gatlin, et al – I thought I would start with sprinters. Let me state up front, that I am not going to list anyone on any of my “Favorites” lists that’s currently competing in the sport. To be eligible as an All Time Favorite your career must be over – otherwise you would be a current favorite. Besides, it allows me the opportunity to reminisce a bit and compare eras. And I think you will be surprised at some of the names that you will see. So let’s get to it. Here are my Ten Favorite Sprinters – Men’s Version.

1. Steve Williams – Williams was one of the most dominant athletes of the 70’s – when he was healthy. He was the original “sub-sprinter” with clockings of 9.9/19.8/44.8 during his career. He set WR’s at 100yds (9.1), 100m (9.9, 4x), and 200m (19.8). He was the winner of the first ever World Cup in 1977, and anchored a WR 38.03 4×1 that same year. Williams was a classic “slow start/blazing finish” sprinter who was renowned for running other sprinters down. Unfortunately many reading this may not be aware of him as he was injured in 1972 and 1976 – Olympic seasons. In full stride Williams was beautiful to watch, his long strides eating up ground as he closed on the field.

2. Quincy Watts – I’m sure this pick will surprise a lot of people, but quarter milers are sprinters too – and Watts was one of the best if only for a short time. I remember watching Watts run in high school and demolish the field – in the 100 and 200. This kid was always a beautiful sprinter – long fluid strides a la Steve Williams that just ate away at the field. In college however, “Q” kept getting hurt. There’s something about those long strides that often have difficulty as the turnover increases. Many a sprinter has had to succumb to the injury bug – and many a career has not panned out. But “Q” moved up to the 400 meters setting a CR 44.00, then going on to win double gold in Barcelona running 43.50 in the 400 (after cruising a 43.75 semi) and running a 43.1 third leg on the 2:55.71 4×4 (a WR at the time). The following year saw him place only 4th in Worlds as a shoe came off around the final bend. That race was won by one Michael Johnson as he began his run in the event. Watts came back to split 43.56 on the second leg of the WR 2:54.29 4×4. Injuries reared their ugly head afterwards as Watts also toyed with trying to make it in football. But for a hot minute he was about as good as it got.

3. James Sanford – It wasn’t until the ‘91 World Championships in Tokyo that an athlete ran under 9.90 with legal wind (Lewis 9.86WR, Burrell 9.88). Prior to that however, Sanford blazed 9.88 with only a 2.3mps wind way back in 1980! In the late 70’s Sanford was the man others feared to race. He had no fear. His power could be felt in the stands. And he was an odds on favorite to win any time he stepped on the track. He was the “non altitude” record holder in the 100 with a 10.03 that he made look easy. This man was destined for greatness. Then two things happened.. First was the boycott of the 1980 Games by the United States. I could make a Who’s Who list of athletes whose careers were derailed by the boycott. Athletes who were unable to go another four years to wait for another Olympics – track was still amateur back then. The other thing that happened was Sanford got involved in drugs. Not PEDs, recreational. I’m sure you’re wondering why I have someone who got involved in that activity on this list, but if you had ever watched Sanford run you would understand. This was an all time great sprinter taken down by circumstances off the track. Tragic. I put him here because he was but one of many who in my opinion were victims of one of the worst political moves in history. He and USC teammates Billy Mullins, Bill Green, and Clancy Edwards. Along with others like hurdler Dedy Cooper and quarter miler Willie Smith. These and many others saw their potential curtailed because of the boycott. James leads this list as one of my all time favorite sprinters.

4. Don Quarrie – If Steve Williams had a rival/foil/equal it was Quarrie. Not tall like Williams, Quarrie was nonetheless a very statuesque sprinter who got the most out of his height. Beautiful knew lift, great mid race acceleration, and excellent turn running were the trademarks of Don Quarrie. In the mid 70’s he and Williams went toe to toe on a regular basis – and they usually took it to the finish line! Quarrie was a WR holder in his own right running 19.8 (19.86 auto) in the 200 and had a 9.9 clocking of his own! When Steve wasn’t in the race I was rooting for Quarrie. And when they ran together only Quarrie would win and still have my respect. Theirs was one of the best rivalries ever. And for those that say that having stars run against each other regularly would diminish their performances at Majors, have never seen a TRUE rivalry play out on the track. Because a True Rivalry only enhances the anticipation for the Majors, which then becomes THE ULTIMATE head to head.

5. Maurice Greene – The ultimate story. Come out of nowhere in 1995 to defeat Carl Lewis in a windy 9.88 at the Texas Relays. Makes the World Championships team but doesn’t do so well. Injuries keep him at bay in 1996 and he watches the Trials in the stands – purportedly with tears in his eyes. He moves from the Mid West to Los Angeles to go train with John Smith. Global titles in the 100 followed in 1997, 1999 (also 200 gold, the first to double), 2000 and 2001. Set tthe WR at 9.79 in 1999. He finished his career with a bronze in 2004. “Mo” was the ultimate competitor who would find a way to win. He could come from behind or use a strong mid race surge to put the race away early. Many remember him pulling up in Edmonton (‘01) but finishing the race in 9.82 to hold off arch rival Tim Montgomery. The ultimate win at all costs race! And that’s what Mo was known for – giving it everything he had every time out. No ducking, he ran against anyone, anytime, anywhere. The last of the “true” 100 meter champions.

6. Linford Christie – Linford was the “pre-Mo Greene” – a sprinter that seems to thrive on competition. Linford took his lumps in the early days of his career as he got to cut his teeth on Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell. But Linford is living proof that that which does not kill you makes you stronger. He considered giving up the sport after finishing 4th in that WR Tokyo ran in ‘91 – but he didn’t. He was rewarded with gold in Barcelona, then repeat gold in Stuttgart in 9.87 – just missing the WR by .01! Christie is easily the best sprinter ever produced in Europe. Not just because of his times, but because of his attitude. Christie brought that old “gunslinger” mentality to the track. A 1960’s mentality that it was high noon at the OK Corral and he was going to be the fastest gun in town. Christie was power. Power and attitude. If you wanted to beat Linford you had to bring it – period! I like that in a sprinter.

7. John Carlos – Speaking of gunslinger types, that’s exactly what John Carlos was. Brash. A trash talker. A trash talker that could back it up. He KNEW he could beat you. One of the early sprinters I got to see in person as a young kid, and you knew where Carlos was because he was talking trash. Then he would go out there and just fly down the track. He tied the WR in the 100yd dash at 9.1. He was the first man to run under 20.00 going 19.92 in the 200 way back in 1968! He’s best known for his bronze in Mexico City in the 200 and his protest with Tommie Smith on the victory stand. But for me, Carlos was one of the early stars of the sport. He was the vision of confidence that I wanted to have. No fear. Beat me if you can – and you can bet you’ll have to go some to do it.

8. Eddie Hart – I must be a sucker for hard luck stories. Hart was one of my favorite sprinters being from Northern California. He was 9.2 in the 100 yds just missing the the WR and tied the WR at the Olympic Trials in ‘72 at 9.9. He was a favorite to win in Munich until he missed his quarterfinal because of a schedule mix up. He retired from the sport for over half a decade before returning to see what he could do. An aging sprinter (especially then) he returned to become one of the best in the world and set an auto timed PR of 10.07 – when the WR was still 9.95 and no one was running sub10. Gotta love that.

9. Larry Black – If you know this name then you are a track junkie like me. Black was one of the best 200 meter men in the early 1970’s. Not only was he awesome in the deuce but he was sub44 in the 4×4! Now that’s a sprinter. He ran 20.0 in the 200 when the record was 19.8, and dropped several 43’s running for North Carolina Central. He was a heavy favorite heading into Munich and won every single round – including his semi where he had the fastest time. Which has always left me curious how he ended up in lane 1 in the final with Valeri Borzov in the middle of the track. Lane 1 is tough to overcome and Larry ended up with silver in 20.19. He was still one of my early heroes in the sport, and still one of my all time favorites!

10. Joe Deloach – Deloach had a way of running that looked like he wasn’t running – like he was floating on top of the track. Joe was a high school star in perhaps the worst season ever to be a high school sprint star. He ran 10.21 and 20.24 – his 200 still making him #4 all time. Yet he was overshadowed by the duo of Roy Martin and Henry Thomas who were just lighting things up. It didn’t get much better at the next level as he went to the University of Houston which at the time was a sprint factory claiming stars such as Carl Lewis, and Leroy Burrell among others. Then he chose to run with the Santa Monica Track Club and more Lewis, Burrell, and Mike Marsh among others. In 1988, however he rose above the fray to first upset Lewis at the Olympic Trials in the 200, then turn the trick one mo gin at Seoul with a sensational 19.75 OR. Both time with that stride of his that looked like he was almost tiptoeing down the track – just barely skimming the surface. Like so many others, injury came in and took him down. But for that moment in time, Deloach was poetry in motion, and one of my all time favorites.

11. Tommie Smith – I was going to do just 10 but have to put Tommie on the list. And he could just as easily be in that top 3. Tommie had an “overdrive gear” like nobodies business. A long sprinter that could run 10.1 in the 100, he was 44.5 in the 400 and 19.83WR in the 200. Tommie had that long stride that Usain Bolt is known for today. As a matter of fact they used to go out and measure it on those old dirt/cinder tracks. Oh did I mention that Tommie once ran 19.5 in the 200 on the straight! Way back in 1966! On dirt. Not Mondo, dirt. If they had rescheduled things in the Olympics back in 1968 he might have been the first to win the 200/400 double. That’s saying a lot since gold was won by Lee Evans in 43.86. But Tommie was that good – because he had beaten Evans before and was once WR holder in the 440 with his 44.5!

Yes Tommie is listed at #11, but you know what they say, save the best for last. Besides it’s hard making a list of just 10 with all the sprinters I’ve seen. I mean how many record setters are missing from this list? Gold medalists? I’m sure I’ll hear a lot of names that could easily have made the cut. Remember, I said favorites, not “greatest of all time”. I’d love to hear who some of your favorites over the years have been.

Well that was fun. I think I’ll take a look at either the middle distances or hurdles next. Kinda leaning towards the middle distances.

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6 Responses to “My Favorite All Time Sprinters”

  1. Nick says:

    CHill, I was about to mention Clancy Edwards when I saw you gave him a shout-out. Loved watching him run; the man was glued to the blocks and usually the last one out, but when he hit high gear, it was over.

    the other guy I liked watching was Frank Fredericks. Seemed like such a classy guy who was so close so many times.

    Lee Evans; just a runaway diesel. There’s a BBC documentary on You Tube called ‘Black Power Salute.’ Lee and the guys tell the whole story, and some great footage.

  2. Aurelio Feldman says:

    Maybe you should do 1 post for each event because when you talked about the sprints a lot of guys are left out, like Fredericks, Boldon, Michael Johnson, the ultimate long sprinter.

    I am 35 and really fell in love with athletics watching Carl x Ben but my favorite sprinter was Mo Greene.

    He and his HSI teammates changed the game under John Smith, they made running under 10’00 something that they could do any given day not just in the final of the big event of the year.

    And Boldon was very close, running fast in both 100 and 200.

    And How not to talk about MJ, the guy made the 400 a different event since he left.

    • CHill says:

      Yeah, I think you are right .. Individual events would have been better ..I repeatedly didn’t think it would be this difficult simply because they are lists of my personal favorites .. But just settling on 10 is very difficult ., Fun, but difficult ..

  3. Nick says:

    Conway,
    I always suspected Juantoreana of doping; any opinion? The man was 190 pounds and ran an 800m in 1:43.50. I don’t remember any half miler built like that. And Cuba’s relationship to the Eastern Bloc always made me wonder. Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of Mr. Newhouse; told Fred that when we lift the Cuban embargo, I’m going to Havana and get his 400m gold medal back!

    Love reading your lists: people can argue all day long, but a man’s favorites can’t be wrong.

    • CHill says:

      Personally I never suspected Juantorena .. I think largely because they’ve always had a pretty good history of top athletes in sport, and they had several good track athletes at that time – Silvio Leonard, Leandro Penalver, and Alejandro Casanas to name a few .. So the thought never crossed my mind .. I knew their political philosophy was in line with the East, but Castro was also somewhat of an isolationist …

      Size side Joaquin Cruz comes to mind .. Johnny Gray .. I just think he was the first of the big long striding half milers ..

      Glad you like the lists .. Though I would do something different the first half of down time … And felt that with so many active athletes performing at all time levels, teething to do GOAT lists is too difficult ..

      Thanks for reading …

  4. Jack Cerone says:

    Where’s Micheal Johnson??

    The best and most famous power sprinter of all time 400/200 Olympic Gold medal winner and world record holder in both events.

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