100-Metre Sprint Record Progression through the 20th Century

Current 100-metre record holder Usain Bolt Credit: Hilts UK Flikr

Records are made to be broken. Since 1912 the International Association of Athletics Federation has been scrupulously tracking elite athletes and diligently maintaining comprehensive performance records with the greatest degree of accuracy technology allows. Since the early days of organised athletics, the world has marveled as long-held records are toppled and new milestones are laid.

Since Jesse Owens embarrassed the Fuhrer in front of his home crowd during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, athletes – sprinters in particular – have possessed the ability to capture the public imagination and have carved a special place in the public psyche. This special place was re-enforced and strengthened during the twentieth century as Carl Lewis, Linford Christie and Usain Bolt romped home in times their contemporaries and predecessors could only imagine.

Fans, industry commentators and professional nutritionists postulate that that an improved protein-rich diet and the pivot towards professionalism in the late 1970s have had a profound impact on athletes’ performance and that record-breaking times will continue to be posted provided sports science continues to develop at pace. Some point out though, that a time will come when records can no longer be broken – but that we’re not there yet.

In the decades since the IAAF’s foundation the cream of athletics have been chipping away at their forerunners’ accomplishments. If a runner is competing in a marathon, a new record registers seconds better than the last – or in exceptional cases, minutes; if it’s a 100-metre sprint the margin is likely to be slender – a fraction of a second. Today, the most marginal gains – to the accuracy of 1/1000 of a second – are detectable, thanks to the development of the atomic clock.

We’ve mapped perhaps the most sought-after distance title – the 100 metres — and charted its progress decade by decade, to provide a visual representation of athletes’ gains.

 The first athletes to register records in the IAAF era – 1912 to present – were US natives Donald Lippincott and Jackson Scholz, who completed the dash in 10.6 seconds in 1912 and 1920 respectively. The 100-metre record was broken thirteen times prior to the outbreak of WW2, nine of those by Americans. Japan, Sweden, Canada and the Netherlands made up the other four. By 1945, the record stood at 10.2 seconds.

Track runners in 1934 Credit: The Happy Rower

In the post-war period, the development of the atomic clock meant that runners could be timed in milliseconds greatly improving timing accuracy.  Prior to the development of the clock, timings were kept by race officials using standard analogue stopwatches. It wasn’t until 1977 though, that the IAAF began tracking athletes to the hundredth of a second, as we’re used to today.

It wasn’t until 1968 that the 10-second barrier was broken. Jim Hines, who had run in 10 seconds flat the year before, broke the magic mark in Sacramento, California in June 1968. Hines, who went on to win individual and relay gold at the Mexico Olympics later that summer, held the record for 15 years. Carl Lewis, who ran 9.86 was the first athlete to record under 9.9 seconds (9.86) since Hines hit 9.9 seconds in 1991. This was partly due to the aforementioned improvement in tracking accuracy, when in 1977 an extra two decimal places were added to official records.

In recent times, developments in sports science and nutrition have meant that our sprinters are faster than ever. Supplements, the switch to large-scale professionalism in the 1990s and millions of euros worth of resources being pumped into athletics programmes by elite countries saw records begin to break at a frenetic pace. Between 2005 and 2009, the 100-metre record was broken seven times by three men – Justin Gatlin, Asafa Powell and Usain Bolt. It has remained intact at 9.58 seconds since Bolt improved on his own record in the World Championships in Berlin in 2009.