An Illustrated History of Sprints and Relays

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The early days of sprints and relays

Archie Hahn
Archie Hahn (second from right) on his way to victory in the 1906 Olympic 100-meter final. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The history of sprint races likely stretches back to the beginning of human athletic competition. Sprint races were a part of the ancient Greek Olympics and were also a part of the first modern Games in 1896. Early Olympic standouts included American Archie Hahn, who won the 100- and 200-meter races in the 1904 Olympics, plus the 100 meters in the 1906 Intercalated Games (above).

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Chariots of Fire

Eric Liddell
Great Britain's Eric Liddell in a 4 x 400-meter relay. MacGregor / Getty Images

Americans won 18 of the first 24 men's 400-meter Olympic championships. Probably the most famous non-American to win the 400 Olympic gold during that span was Great Britain's Eric Liddell (shown above in a 4 x 400-meter relay). Liddell's 1924 gold medal-winning performance was transferred to the movie screen - with a few Hollywood-style liberties - in 1981.

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Four golds for Owens

Jesse Owens
Jesse Owens runs away from the field in the 1936 Olympic 200-meter final. Austrian Archives/Imagno/Getty Images

Sprints and relays lend themselves to participation in multiple events. One of the most spectacular multiple-event Olympic performances was that of Jesse Owens in 1936, when he won the 100 and the 200 (as shown above) and ran on the United States' victorious 4 x 100-meter relay team. Owens also won the long jump at the Berlin Games.

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Women sprinters join Olympics

Fanny Blankers-Koen Crosses Finish Line
Fanny Blankers-Koen Crosses Finish Line. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The 100-meter dash and the 4 x 100-meter relay were original events when women entered Olympic track and field competition in 1928. The 200-meter run was added in 1948, the 400 in 1964 and the 4 x 400 relay in 1972. Fanny Blankers-Koen (above) of the Netherlands was the first Olympic women's 200-meter Olympic gold medalist. She also won the 100 and the 80-meter hurdles in the 1948 London Games.

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The World's Fastest Man

Jim Hines
Jim Hines (second from right) surged past the field to win the 1968 Olympic 100-meter gold medal in 9.95 seconds. Tony Duffy/Allsport/Getty Images

The Olympic 100-meter dash champion traditionally gains the title of the "World's Fastest Man" (or woman). American Jim Hines (above, second from right) was the first 100-meter sprinter to break the 10-second barrier in an Olympic final when he won the 1968 gold medal in 9.95 seconds.

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Florence Griffith-Joyner
The colorful Florence Griffith-Joyner set the 100-meter world record during the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials. Tony Duffy/Allsport/Getty Images

American Florence Griffith-Joyner literally found her stride in 1988, as she established world records in the 100- and 200-meter events. Her world-record 10.49-second time in the 100 - set during the quarterfinals of the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials - is controversial because a possibly malfunctioning wind meter apparently turned a wind-aided run into a legal race. But her time of 10.61, set in the 100-meter final the next day (pictured above), is the second-best of all time (as of 2016). Additionally, there's no doubting her 200-meter mark. She broke the world record by running 21.56 during the 1988 Olympic 200-meter semifinals​ and lowered the standard to 21.34 in the final.

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Unique double

Michael Johnson
Michael Johnson celebrates his 400-meter world record performance at the 1999 World Championships. Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

American Michael Johnson was the first Olympic sprinter to win gold medals in both the 200 and 400 in the same year when he accomplished the feat in 1996. His 200-meter time of 19.32 during the Atlanta Games established a world record. He's shown above after setting the 400-meter world record of 43.18 seconds at the 1999 World Championships. 

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Relay success

Jeremy Wariner
Anchor man Jeremy Wariner completes the U.S. victory in the 2008 Olympic 4 x 400-meter final. Forster/Bongarts/Getty Images

Americans have dominated the Olympic 4 x 400-meter relay event. On the men's side, U.S. teams have won 16 of the 23 gold medals awarded from 1912 - when it became a men's Olympic event - through 2012. Since the 4 x 400 became a women's Olympic event in 1972, American squads have won six of the 11 gold medals. The U.S. men set an Olympic record in 2008 by winning the 4 x 400-meter relay in 2:55.39. Anchor man Jeremy Wariner is pictured above.

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How low can you go?

Usain Bolt
Usain Bolt breaks his own 100-meter world record by winning the 2009 World Championship final in 9.58 seconds. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

How low can sprint records drop? The question remains open. Jamaica's Usain Bolt began his world-record assault in 2008. He set a world 100-meter mark of 9.72 seconds in New York on May 31, and then lowered the record to 9.69 at the 2008 Olympics in August. He also broke Michael Johnson's 200-meter record in Beijing, with a time of 19.30. One year later, Bolt improved the 100-meter standard to 9.58 seconds, and the 200-meter mark to 19.19, performing both feats during the 2009 World Championships

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4 x 100 speed

Carmelita Jeter crosses the finish line in the 2012 Olympic 4 x 100-meter final.
Carmelita Jeter crosses the finish line in the 2012 Olympic 4 x 100-meter final. Omega/Getty Images

The 4 x 100-meter relay has been part of the men's Olympic track and field program since 1912​ and has been a women's event since 1928. The American 4 x 100-meter team of Carmelita Jeter, Allyson Felix, Bianca Knight and Tianna Madison set a world record of 40.82 seconds in the 2012 Olympic final. The photo above shows the Americans' margin of victory, as Jeter crosses the finish line.