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

Track and Field’s Heroes

Nov 11th, 2009
7:50 am PST

As we take time out to celebrate America’s war heroes on Veterans Day, I thought it might also be appropriate to celebrate our Track and Field Heroes. After all, just as our veterans went in to battle to preserve the freedom of our nation, there have been many heroes in our sport that have paved the way and set standards for today’s athletes to follow.

So following are some of the sport’s greats. Athletes that I feel during my lifetime have made a difference and helped to make the sport great. I know there will be many omissions. That’s one of the great things about this sport – we’ve had a plethora of stars pass through. And I’m sure everyone will have their own “list” to add. But that’s what Veterans Day is all about – each one remembering in his/her own way. So here is my start to honoring the sports greats.

Carl Lewis

Love him or hate him (and there are those on both sides of the ledger) Carl made headlines and brought a tremendous amount of recognition to the sport. It was Carl, and manager Joe Douglas of the Santa Monica Track Club, that paved the way for professionalism in this sport in the 1980’s. And being the world’s preeminent jumper/sprinter gave Carl clout that few others had. Winner of 9 Olympic gold medals and 8 World Championship golds, Lewis brought a rock star attitude to the sport, fighting for financial parity with those of other sports. Often this put him at odds with meet promoters, federation officials, and even his peers, but Lewis made great strides in making money in this sport. If there was a pioneer on the way to professionalism it would have to be Lewis.

Evelyn Ashford

Evelyn came along in the middle of the Cold War and a period of dominance in women’s sprinting by the “Eastern Bloc”. East Germany’s women were lead by world record setting stars Marlies Gohr and Marita Koch women who it seemed at the time were unbeatable as they routinely broke or ran close to WR times. But Ashford took on the “undefeatables” and defeated them both in a huge double victory in at the 1979 World Cup in Montreal. She continued throughout her career to defeat her rivals in the process taking the women’s 100 into the 10.7 realm (10.76). She showed what hard work and perseverance can accomplish while defeating foes all knew to be a part of the East German systematic doping machine.

Edwin Moses

Before Moses came along the intermediate hurdles were an event you did if you weren’t good at the open 400 or the high hurdles. Moses changes that with 13 strides of consistency. He brought focus and excitement to an event that no one had cared about before. He took his event to the edge of 47 seconds (47.02) while winning 122 straight races! During Moses reign the event grew in stature attracting better talent and becoming a center piece in meets throughout the world. In the process Moses became the model of perfection in his event and showed that brains were as important as brawn in sport.

Jackie Joyner Kersee & Heike Drechsler

Rivals and friends, between them they controlled the heptathlon, long jump, and a bit of the sprints during the 80’s. In what was an evolving women’s sport at the time, they took their events to new levels and their personal competitions against each other took on legendary status. They made 24 feet a standard in the long jump. Joyner Kersee took us past 7000 points on her way to 7291 in the heptathlon. Drechsler sped 21.74 to tie the WR in the 200. Outstanding performances aside, they epitomized good sportsmanship being fierce rivals on the track but friends off it.

Steve Ovett & Sebastian Coe

Speaking of legendary competitions and rivals, that’s exactly what Ovett and Coe were. Tremendous rivals – to the point of being bitter rivals throughout their careers. Together, however, their rivalry brought the middle distances into the modern age. Coe took us to 1:42 (1:42.33) then 1:41 (1:41.73) in the 800. But it was in the 1500/mile where their rivalry took on epic proportions. Before they went back and forth trading records the records stood at 3:32.2/3:49.4. When they were done the records were 3:30.77/3:47.33 with 8 lowerings of the records between them! They showed the effect a true rivalry can have on the sport as they pushed each other to greatness.

Alberto Juantorena

I have to include “El Caballo”. We’ve seen a lot of studs in this sport. Usain Bolt and Kenenisa Bekele are only the latest. Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson. Tommie Smith, Henry Rono and Said Aouita are among those that came before. But all of the above competed in multiple events that were similar – related sprints or related distance or middle distance events. Juantorena competed in a sprint event AND a middle distance and was dominant at both winning Olympic gold in both the 400 AND 800 – a feat forgotten by many. El Caballo was powerful and graceful and showed us all that just about anything is possible.

As I said, there are many others that can be named. But for me, these all taught us lessons in the sport. They paved the way for those that have come since. Setting standards that still hold strong in the sport today. So as we celebrate those who have fought for our freedom and kept America great, lets also celebrate those who have set standards of excellence in track and field and helped to make this sport great.

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