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

The Greatest Of All Time!

Nov 24th, 2010
9:35 am PDT
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUG 11 1984: Carl Lewis of the USA waves the flag during a lap of honour after he anchored the USA team to victory in a new world record time of 37.83 seconds in the 4 x 100m relay during the 1984 Olympic Games at the Colliseum Stadium on August 11, 1984 in Los Angeles. (Photo by David Cannon / Getty Images )

The recent retirement, then retractment, by Haile Gebrselassie got me thinking about who the greatest athlete has been in this sport. Primarily because that could be Haile himself – if nothing else, he is probably the greatest distance runner of all time.

Of course, track and field has a very long and storied history, so trying to determine the Greatest Of All Time is really a rather daunting task – especially given the various changes/stages that the sport has gone through. Because while individual PR’s are important, world records and all time lists will always get faster, farther, higher. What becomes important in trying to evaluate “The Best”, whether it be for a season, a decade, or in this case of all time, is how does an athlete compare to his peers. Which means that wins and losses; head to head records against the best of his/her era; and performance in championship settings become extremely important.

The biggest difficulty, at least for me, comes in trying to figure out where athletes of the earliest eras belong. Because prior to around the 1930’s, the Olympics (the largest gathering of the sports best) was rather limited in participation. And then the presence of the African nations wasn’t really felt until the 1960’s. Then of course there was the advent of true professionalism in the 1980’s, along with the introduction of the World Championships, that really opened the sport up to pretty much what we see today.

All of which creates some “differences” that have to be taken into account when trying to evaluate across the years. I mean comparing Paavo Nurmi to Haile Gebrselassie is not just as easy as saying they both ran and were successful at multiple disciplines – though both were dominant during their eras.

Having said all that, I do think that there are athletes that stand out from the crowd. So following is my list of the Top Ten Track and Field Athletes of All Time. In all but one case the athletes on the list are retired – because I wanted to take a look at the entirety of an athlete’s career. There are many athletes who early on or midway through their careers appeared to be headed for greatest of all time status, but then were felled by injury or simply a fall off in performance. Or in some cases saw another athlete eclipse them.

My only exception to the “retired” rule is Gebrselassie himself, as his career has already spanned over 10 years – enough time to get an adequate measure of true greatness in my opinion. Number ten on my list is also an exception in that he never held a WR – and by typical measure we consider that at some point an athlete should set the standard in order to be in the running for best of all time. In this athlete’s case I felt that being .01 off was close enough.

So without further adieu, here is my list of the Greatest Track and Field Athletes of All Time:



Allen Johnson – 110 Hurdles

Johnson never set a WR, but that doesn’t stop him from making my list. With gold in ‘95, ‘96, ‘97, ‘01, and ‘03 (and a very close 4th ‘in 00) Johnson had perhaps the most dominating career of any hurdler ever. And although he never set the WR, he was only .01sec off on two separate occasions with his PR 12.92, as Johnson ran under 13 seconds an astounding 11 times!


Jan Zelezny – Javelin

Zelezny owned his event for a decade winning three Olympics (‘92, ‘96, ‘00) and three World Championships (‘93, ‘95, ‘01). And even in his few “down” seasons won a bronze in ‘99 and fourth in ‘03. He set four WR’s in the process and still has 14 of the top 20 throws ever – including the top 5!



Al Oerter – Discus

Oerter is the one athlete on my list that did not compete during the “professional” era. However, missing out on professionalism didn’t keep Al from having a long and outstanding career. Because 4 Olympic titles, (‘56, ‘60’, ‘64, ‘68) puts him in elite territory. And is extraordinary when you consider that the last two titles came when the competition had supposedly moved past him as athletes like Danek and Silvester were out rewriting the record books. This following the earlier part of Oeter’s career where he set 4 World Records of his own.



Daley Thompson – Decathlon

It stands to reason that a decathlete should be on this list. After all he must become proficient in TEN events in order to win his event. Becoming the best at this event is difficult with the top guy changing routinely from year to year. Staying on top is difficult – which makes the career of Daley Thompson that much more outstanding. Thompson won back to back Olympic titles in ‘80 and ‘84, was fourth in ‘88 and won the first ever World title in ‘83.  He set four WR’s (8622, 8704, 8743, 8847) three times taking it back after having lost it and is still fourth best of all time – only record setters Dan O’Brien, Tomas Dvorak and Roman Sebrle having better scores!



Maurice Greene – 100 meters

Maurice Greene is one of those athletes that redefined an event. Prior to Greene, running sub 10.00 was something that happened in major championships and the occasional big match up. Greene refined his race pattern and showed that running at that level consistently was possible. Then with a combination of consistent race pattern and dogged competitive will, Greene went on to win World Championship titles in ‘97, ‘99, and ‘01; Olympic gold (‘00) and bronze (‘04), throwing in a World title over 200 meters in ‘99 for good measure. He also set the WR outdoors (9.79) and 2 WR’s indoors (6.39, 6.39). From the later part of the 90’s til the middle of the oughts Greene was the man to beat until injury finally took him down.



Edwin Moses – 400 meter hurdles

Another who redefined his event was Edwin Moses. A solid high hurdler with  400 meter ability, Moses took a cerebral approach to the sport. Combining his talents he focused on the intermediate hurdles, and using his engineering mind developed a 13 step pattern that he rode to 400 hurdle dominance. That dominance included Olympic titles in ‘76 & ‘84 (surely a third was in the cards if not for the boycott of the Moscow Games in ‘80) and a bronze in ‘88; World titles in ‘83 & ‘87; 3 World Cups wins; and  4 World Records (47.64, 47.45, 47.13 & 47.02). And of course “The Streak” – 122 straight wins without a loss that covered 9 years 9 months and 9 days! Nearly a decade without a loss against some of history’s best hurdlers including Harald Schmid, Danny Harris, Andre Phillips, Amadou Dia Ba, David  Patrick, Samuel Matete, and Kevin Young. To this day only WR holder Kevin Young has run faster – once – as Moses still has 4 of the 10 fastest times ever.



Sergei  Bubka – Pole Vault

Bubka seemed to always be beset by injury during the Olympic years. But that is about the only flaw that one can find in an otherwise fantastic career. In spite of his injury jinx he still won Olympic gold in ‘88 and put together a string of 6 World Championships titles in a row. As a matter of fact Bubka won the inaugural World Championships in 1983 and was the only vaulter to win gold until 1999! If that’s not impressive enough consider that when he came on the scene the WR was barely over 19 feet (19’ 1.5”). Bubka raised the outdoor record 17 times – becoming the only man to vault over 20 feet (20’ 1.5” outdoors) – a barrier he cleared 5 times in his career. Bubka has held the world record continuously since 1984 (over a quarter century) – his final mark being set in 1994 – and he holds the top 13 marks of all time! The greatest career ever in a single event in my humble opinion.



Michael Johnson – 200 & 400 meters

Separating the top three from the others is excellence in multiple events. And coming in at number three is a man who took what 60’s sprinters Henry Carr and Tommie Smith had hinted at and made it reality as Michael Johnson spent the 90’s dominating the 200 and 400 meters! From 1991 thru 2000 Johnson won 2 Olympic titles over 400 (‘96 & ‘00, the only man to win back to back titles at the distance); 4 World titles over 400 (‘93, ‘95, ‘97, and ‘99); 1 Olympic title over 200 (‘96); and  2 World titles over 200 (‘91 & ‘95) winning 200/400 doubles in ‘95 & ‘96! In the process he set 3 WR’s – 2 over 200 (19.66, 19.32) and 1 over 400 (43.18). He is still the WR holder over 400 (set in 1999) and his 200 record lasted for 12 years.



Haile Gebrselassie – distance runner

I have already discussed the career of Gebrselassie. He lands in the number two spot on my ranking because no other track athlete has been as dominant as he has been over such a range of distances. And should he end his career by taking the marathon anywhere near two hours he will leap frog his way into the number one position.



Carl Lewis – sprinter / jumper

Lewis is #1 because he displayed excellence on both the track AND the field – and he did so from 1980 through the 90’s! First the numbers: 4 Olympic titles in the long jump (‘84, ‘88, ‘92’ ‘96); 2 World titles in the long jump (‘83 & ‘87); 1 World silver in the long jump, (‘91); 1 Olympic title in the 200, (‘84); 1 Olympic silver in the 200 (‘88); 1 World bronze in the 200 (‘93); 2 Olympic titles in the 100 (‘84 & ‘88); 3 World titles in the 100 (‘83, ‘87, ‘91); 1 World bronze in the 100 (‘93); and  3 WR’s in the 100 (9.93, 9.92, 9.86). He duplicated Jesse Owens feat of four gold medals at the Olympics  in 1984 (100/200/LJ & 4×1) having also turned the trick at the World Championships the year before. And like Al Oerter at #8, he won four Olympic titles in a single event – the long jump. Love him or hate him – and there are those on both sides of the fence – Carl got it done when the lights were shining brightest. And he did so as both a sprinter and a jumper for a decade and a half. Easily making him the Greatest of All Time.

12 Responses to “The Greatest Of All Time!”

  1. skydance7 says:

    It would also be interesting to see your women's list.
    Is that in the works?

  2. Conway Hill says:

    I've given it some thought .. The problem is the dominance of so many women's events by athletes known to have used drugs .. I real list would be dominated by known dopers, yet how do you separate out those that didn't .. Because so many careers were affected by those that did .. I will give it a bit more thought over the next few days (Thanksgiving and all) and see if I can come up with something that I think works ..

  3. hise says:

    Most of the cities you listed do not have a stadium with adequate track facility and/or warm-up track adjacent to the stadium. You would need at least 60-75,000 seat stadium w/ Mondo track and warm-up track next to stadium AND a city large enough to have an International Airport within 20-30 mile radius and enough Hotel rooms within 15-20 mile radius. Houston area does a great job hosting any type of event but, like San Jose, Chicago, New York,etc., there is not a city on the list that meets the requirements.

  4. Conway Hill says:

    You're referring to the previous article .. And that was the point of writing it – that we don't have an adequate facility and need to develop one somewhere … In a city that has all of the other necessities/amenities ..

  5. Aurelio says:

    Dennis Mitchell took the bronze medal in the 100 in the 93 WC, not Carl Lewis.

  6. Conway Hill says:

    You're right … Dennis (9.99) out leaned Carl (10.00) who was fourth … I apologize for switching them .. My bad .. That .01 doesn't change the breath of Carl's Career as that race was a lesser point and not a highlight ..

  7. Aurelio says:

    I agree with you, He is the greatest.
    I have a question for you, if Bolt wins the 100, 200, 4×100 golds in the next WC and OG and after that switchs to 400 and starts to brake world records, to win gold medals, do you think he would be better than Carl?

  8. Conway Hill says:

    IF Bolt were to do those things then absolutely he would move into the number one position .. To dominate over all three sprintn disciplines would definitely do that in my opinion ..

    I'm not sure he will move to the 4 though ..

  9. jnehmer1 says:

    Okay, I’ll get the ball rolling with what I’m sure will be a much-criticized listing of my ten greatest-ever track and field athletes.

    First, I readily acknowledge that Austin is literally a million times more knowledgeable about track than I am, but that’s never stopped me before from throwing my two cents worth into the ring.

    Second, I want to state from the start that I have three very strong biases with regards to track and field: Number one, I heavily favor the running events; Number two, I strongly feel that American sprinters of the last 80 years, Jamaican sprinters of the last six years, and Kenyan and Ethiopian runners of the last 30 years, are the best that the sport has to offer; and Number three, I’m heavily biased in favor of current/recent athletes over the Paavo Nurmis and Gunder Haggs of yesteryear.

    That being said, I offer up to God and country my ten greatest-ever track and field athletes.

    1) Usain Bolt. I know, I know. His career is comprised of only three years at the major-league international level with this last year cut short by injury. But during two of those years he ran 9.69 WR/Olympic Gold, 19.30 WR/Olympic Gold, 37.10 WR/Olympic Gold, 9.58 WR/World Championships Gold, and 19.19 WR/World Championships Gold. If he never ran again he’d still be my number one. The IAAF scoring tables rank his 9.58 at 1374 points, and his 19.19 at 1356 points, which are far and away the highest quality WR’s on the books. Carl Lewis’s long jump career, Michael Johnson’s 200-400 career, and Haile Gebrselassie’s 5-10-Marathon career are anomalies: Two off-the-charts Olympic Games and World Championships are good enough for me. Bolt’s the best athlete, of any sport, that I have ever seen.
    2) King Carl. Track and Field News ranks him as #1 all-time as does Austin, so I’ll accede to their superior knowledge. But King Carl never really dominated the sprints the way he dominated in the long jump, even though he did win the 100 and 200 at the World Champs and at the Olympics. His times were not WR’s at the time, however (except I believe for his 9.86 WR at the ’91 Worlds), as were Bolt’s in 2008 and 2009 His long jump career is obviously off-the-charts.
    3) Haile Gebrselassie. WR’s at 5000, 10000, and Marathon in addition to his Olympic Gold medals. Enough said.
    4) Michael Johnson. WR’s at 200 and 400 in addition to his Olympic Golds. He toyed with people in the 400.
    5) Hicham El Guerrouj. A lot of writers consider the 1500 the most competitive middle distance or long distance running event, and El Guerrouj dominated. He needed his Olympic Gold(s) at the 2004 Olympics to secure his status.
    6) Kenenisa Bekele. In addition to his 5000 and 10000 WR’s and his numerous Gold Medals at the Olys and the WC’s, he has won 11 Senior Championships at the World Cross Countries.
    7) Edwin Moses. Would have been a triple Olympic Gold Medalist if not for the 1980 Olympic boycott. Unbeatable for over a decade in an event that, along with the 110 Meter Hurdles, draws unbelievable athletes.
    8) David Rudisha, for supplanting my hero, Wilson Kipketer, as the WR holder in one of the sport’s noblest events (and my favorite event, along with the 100 and 200 and 110H), the 800. Anyone who can go out in 48.6 seconds and then come home strong in 52.41 is a demigod in my books.
    9) Sergey Bubka. Sustained excellence from 1983 to 1997 and the still-world-record-holder.
    10) Tied for tenth: Javier Sotomoyor for his 2.45 WR and Mike Powell for his 8.95 WR. For putting Sir Isaac Newton’s Laws of Gravity to its sternest test.

  10. Conway Hill says:

    While I appreciate your opinion I do have a few thoughts .. I'll start at the bottom and work my way up to the top …

    On Sotomayor and Powell, their body of work just doesn't put them in the top 10 in my opinion … Powell was overshadowed by Carl, so isn't even at the top of his event … And Soto, just had too many "failures" do mostly to injury … But injury is part of the game … Sterling marks ?? Absolutely … But too many holes in their careers to put them here … Same for a few others I gave some thought to – because I did consider Sotomayor and El Guerrouj for a moment … As a matter of fact I've got about eight or so athletes that I will put down on paper this week as to why I gave them consideration but they just didn't make it …

    Bekele is similar to Powell – overshadowed by Gebrselassie at this stage of his career … So not even the top distance runner … And Rudisha just doesn't have the body of work yet … Remember that we are talking about overall careers not one or two seasons … If we were talking about a handful of seasons then surely Kipketer himself would belong on the list …

    Which brings me to Bolt .. Way to early to anoint him at this point … He has had as good a two seasons as anyone in history … No doubt about that … But people remember that he didn't make it out of the rounds in '04, finished last in the final of the 200 in '05, was maybe the 4th best 200 man in '06, did get silver in '07, then of course the huge '08/'09 campaigns and then this past season where he was surpassed by Gay on the track and both Gay and countryman Carter on the clock … That's not the career of the "Greatest of All Time" … Not when you compare that line to the lines of the 10 that I mentioned before …

    Also consider that anything can yet happen … In '06 many said – despite his failings in '04 & '05 – that Powell was going to be unbeatable for the next decade, win all championships ahead and set a mark that no one would touch … The next year saw him eclipsed by Gay, then in '08 by Bolt … And all he's done is look at the back sides of both since … If Bolt can replicate '08/'09 in a few more seasons then perhaps he will rise into the top ten – even perhaps to the top … But the top ten that I names are athletes that dominated for a decade or more … Not one Games, but multiple Games and Worlds … Bubka has held the WR in the pole vault continuously for a quarter century !!! Carl and Oerter won FOUR Olympic titles in a row – that's 12 years !!! Michael Johnson set WR's in the 200 & 400 – events much less similar than the 100/200 .. And was at the top in both for a decade … And Bekele has been world class at 1500, 5000, 10000, half marathon, and marathon – indoors and out … WR's in all but the 1500 …

    Bolt had an outstanding '08/'09 … Maybe the best two year stretch ever … But the book isn't written on his career yet … And what has been written is 4 average years against 2 outstanding ones … Let's see what the ending brings …

  11. jch says:

    Such a fun topic. How can we forget Viktor Sanayev? OG wins in 68,72,76 and silver in 80. Never got a WC chance. 3 world records. I'd probably rank him ahead of Johnson.

  12. Conway Hill says:

    Victor was one that just missed my list .. Had he had the four Olympic wins he would have made it .. Was that close ..

    I have to put together a list of those that just missed and why they missed .. Will try to do that in the next few days … Sanyev .. ElG … Nehemiah … Edwards … Soto … And a few others …

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