As I stated previously, one of the things that has been missing from the sport are high level rivalries. We have some of the best athletes the sport has ever seen, but getting them to compete against each other with anything remotely resembling regularity seems to be nearly impossible as issues such as contract disputes, injuries, and simply not enough money to go around, leaves us with many meets where the field consists of a star vs. supporting cast.
That’s unfortunate because rivalries have been a very important part of the history of track and field. Typically, high level rivalries have brought a lot of attention to the sport. Even today without many head to head matchups, most people talk about the rivalry of Bolt vs. Gay – even though they’ve only met once a year over the past three years. A sign of just how much fans and the general public relish a good rivalry!
Most rivalries consist of two very good athletes, that are fairly evenly matched. What elevates a rivalry to the next level is when the athletes have extraordinary talent and both seem quite intent on taking the other one down. I’ve been fortunate to see many such rivalries over the years, Ovett v Coe, Ashford v the East Germans and Williams v Quarrie among my favorites. But in some cases the protagonists develop either a near hatred for each other and/or a serious case of “whatever you can do I can do better”! When the rivalry moves to the point that even when they are not competing against each other it is clear that they are on each other’s minds the competition reaches a whole new level.
It is with this in mind that there have been a few rivalries that have taken on epic proportions. So following is my listing of what I consider to be the three most heated rivalries of the modern era.
3. Maurice Greene v Tim Montgomery
Greene and Montgomery emerged almost at the same time. The national championships of 1997 saw both sprinters set new PR’s and enter the world of the truly elite nearly side by side. But it was Greene who went on that summer to win World Championships gold and begin his string of World and Olympic titles, as well as gaining the WR. From 1997 thru 2002 they had some of the sports most stirring duels. Most famous being the ‘01 World Championships in Edmonton where Greene literally pulled a muscle in his quest to defeat Montgomery. The following season after several sizzling races – including a look around stare from Greene to Montgomery at US Nationals – Montgomery finally got a measure of revenge when he took Greene’s WR away with a 9.78 run in Paris, as Greene watched from the stands. The depth of Montgomery’s obsession with Greene was finally revealed however, as he was later found to have resorted to doping in order to gain an advantage over his rival – the epitome of obsession in defeating ones rival.
2. Renaldo Nehemiah v Greg Foster
The sport has been blessed with many outstanding hurdlers, the names of Martin Laurer, Lee Calhoun, Willie Davenport, and Rod Milburn having many stirring battles. But at the end of the 70’s two hurdlers emerged simultaneously with the kind of skills that revolutionize an event – and that is exactly what they did. Foster and Nehemiah were both “do it all hurdlers”. Foster leading a then very powerful UCLA squad not only by hurdling but running the relay and zipping 200 meter sprints (a best of 20.20). Nehemiah was doing the same for Maryland blazing legs on both the 4x2 and 4x4 (sub 45). Foster drew first blood taking the 1978 NCAA title 13.22 to 13.27 – when the WR was 13.21! From that point on it was all “Skeets” however, as he ran 2 WR’s in ‘79 (13.16, 13.00) as well as defeating Greg in a hand timed dual 12.8 to 13.0. The boycott of the Games by the US in ‘80 sort of put a damper on things, but in ‘81 Nehemiah and Foster took things to a whole new level as Renaldo ran 12.93 to Greg’s 13.03 to set a standard that lasted for 8 seasons – and still sits as the =15th best time ever! That race marked the lifetime PR’s for both as Nehemiah went on to play professional football the next year and Foster never had the same fire after his “nemesis” left the sport.
1. Carl Lewis v Ben Johnson
The epitome of the sprint rivalry! Carl Lewis came out as the Man Who Would Be King. Lewis was intent on emulating the four gold medal performances of legendary Jesse Owens – which he did at the 1984 LA Games. Behind him in the bronze position was Ben Johnson – who also wanted fame and glory. Improvement in ‘85/’86 saw Johnson reach Lewis’ level, and have undefeated seasons, as the two athletes never met head to head. They met in ‘87 at the World Championships with Johnson annihilating Lewis and smashing the WR – dropping it from 9.93 to 9.83! A fuming Lewis said on national television that the Olympics were his domain and that he would be turning the tables the next year. The next year Lewis beat a recovering from injury Johnson two weeks before Seoul in their first race since Rome. But in Seoul it was Johnson once again blazing to another WR (9.79) with Lewis in his wake. A few days later, however, it was discovered that in his zeal to rest the throne from Lewis, that Johnson had been on a steroid regimen for years and Johnson had to return the gold medal – which Lewis gladly accepted. As with Montgomery, Johnson’s obsession consumed him.
Following are two Lewis v Johnson matches outside of majors.