It doesn’t seem like it’s been nearly 28 years since the first World Championships. Yet twelve versions of the Championships are in the books, and Daegu will make it a bakers dozen. Not quite the 115 years the modern Olympics have been around, but rapidly closing in on the number of events that have been held – London will be the 30th (XXX) Olympiad.
It would seem, however, that there have been enough renditions of the World Championships to start looking at who the top performers have been. So I have come up with my Great Eight. Four men and four women that I feel have been the ultimate performers at the Games. My eight is not based on a single performance, or a single Championships, but rather the standard of excellence that they set throughout their careers and over several Worlds.
Not that there haven’t been outstanding performances that should be highlighted. There have been and I will be saluting them in a subsequent post. But there have been some athletes that over and over again have been able to rise to the occasion under the spotlight of the World Championships – and it these individuals that I am going to highlight today.
In no particular order, here is my Great Eight. Note that all are included based on their individual performances, not relays. As I feel that relays provide a slightly unfair advantage to the sprinters. These athletes all stand tall on what they accomplished on their own.
Carl Lewis (USA)
Love him or hate him, Carl left his mark on this sport. Carl was in the very first world championships in 1983 and competed in his final meet ten years later in 1993. During that time he won a 100/long jump double in ‘83; another 100/long jump double in ‘87; gold in the 100 and silver in the long jump in ‘91, and took 4th in the 100 and bronze in the 200 in ‘93. His greatest meet was in ‘91 when he set a WR 9.86 to win the 100 and jumped 29’ 2.75”w to take second in the long jump. Carl’s long jump performance included a legal 29’ 1” giving him the greatest series in history. The greatest sprinter/jumper in history, he solidified that title in the World Championships.
Michael Johnson (USA)
Johnson is the reason that athletes have a bye into the World Championships today as injury kept him out of the U.S. Trials for Athens. After the IAAF created the bye, he promptly went to Worlds and won the 400 to continue a streak of wins begun in 1991 when he took gold in the 200. Gold in the 400 followed in ‘93 and then gold in both the 200 & 400 in ‘95. We’ve already discussed ‘97, then he finished off his career at the World Championships with another gold over 400. That final 400 win came courtesy of a WR 43.18 that still stands, and three of his 400 wins were under 44 seconds (43.65, 43.39 and 43.18)! Johnson set a standard in the 400 that is still unmatched.
Hicham El Guerrouj (MOR)
“El G” stamped himself as perhaps the greatest miler in history via his domination of the all time lists and his domination of the World Championships. His first appearance in 1995 “only” resulted in silver, as he lost a battle with then defending World Champion (and WR holder) Nouredinne Morceli. He returned the favor in ‘97, however, taking gold over Morceli who finished fourth. He then went on tear, winning gold again in ‘99, ‘01 AND ‘03. To put icing on the cake, his ‘03 win was part of a 1500/5000 double as he also took gold in the latter event! El G’s World performances were always enough to win – his ‘97 gold coming in a pedestrian for him 3:35.83. It just so happened that in ‘99 with Noah Ngeny running a sizzling 3:28.73, El G needed a 3:27.65 to take gold – a Championships Record that still stands.
Sergei Bubka (UKR)
When you say pole vault, the next words are “Sergei Bubka” because the man left an indelible mark on the event, as the top 13 marks all time bear his name! The same can be said for the World Championships. Bubka made his debut on the world stage at the first rendition of this meet in 1983. He proceeded to win the event at SIX straight Worlds – ‘83, ‘87, ‘91, ‘93, ‘95 and ‘97 – unprecedented in any event! That doesn’t begin to tell the story, however, as in all but one meet (‘95) he set a Championship Record with a winning series of 18’ 8.25” (‘83), 19’ 2.25” (‘87), 19’ 5” (91), 19’ 8” (‘93), 19’ 5” (‘95) and 19’ 8.5” (97). Bubka didn’t just win, he was excellence personified as he did so. Arguably the greatest performer in Worlds history.
Jackie Joyner Kersee (USA)
It’s only fitting that the female version of the World’s Greatest Athlete, Heptathlete Jackie Joyner Kersee be on this list. Because not only was she able to win gold as the world’s best heptathlete, but she also went head to head with the world’s best in the long jump and was able to win gold there as well! Her first appearance at Worlds in ‘87 saw her win gold in both the long jump and heptathlon. She followed that up with a solo long jump win in ‘91 and then solo Heptathlon gold in ‘93 before finishing out her career with a 6th place finish in the heptathlon in ‘95. Not quite the longevity that you see with my men’s entrants on this list, but when you look at the women’s side of the ledger, dominating past more than two meets has been the rarity. And for “JJK” to last through four renditions of worlds as a multi event athlete is more than we’ve seen male or female!
Ana Quirot (CUB)
Ana was an athlete in the mold of countryman Alberto Juantorena as she was world class in both the 400 and 800. Though world ranked in both at various times in her career, it was the 800 that she ran at Majors – and ran exceedingly well. She was only 4th in her first appearance in 1987, but returned in ‘91 to move up to silver. Then tragedy struck as she was severely burned in a fire, and many thought her career was over. Sadly she missed the ‘93 version of the meet. But then there she was in ‘95 taking gold in a sizzling 1:56.11 – though she still bore the scars of her injuries! One more appearance in ‘97 saw gold again in 1:57.14. I’m typically not one to include “feel good” stories for the sake of including a feel good story, but competing over a 10 year span of Worlds and winning two gold and a silver would be nearly reason enough for inclusion, to do so after such a tragic accident – and to return to such an outstanding level of performance just has to rate as one of the greatest performers in history in my book.
Gail Devers (USA)
Gail was the rare athlete that was able to win gold over the hurdles and on the flat. In her case it was over 100 meters as she began her World’s career with a silver over the hurdles in ‘91. She kicked it up a notch in ‘93 however as she won gold in both the hurdles and flat 100 – the 100 over one of the toughest fields in history as she defeated all time greats Merlene Ottey (JAM), Gwen Torrence (USA) and Irina Privalova (RUS). Going back to focus on the hurdles in ‘95 she won yet another gold to finish off her career, for a nice four meet haul. Outstanding when you consider she competed in two events where the slightest mistake is the difference between gold and perhaps not even being on the podium.
Merlene Ottey (JAM)
Ottey was known as the Bronze Queen throughout her career, because of her haul of bronze medals in Olympic and World competition. She mamy not have won ever race, but she still makes my list however, because no one faced as many great athletes and great fields as she did and still find their way to the podium – over and over and over again. Ottey started her run with the very first Worlds in 1983 and nearly a decade and a half later was still medaling in 1997. Along the way she finished: 100 4th, 200 bronze (‘83), double bronze in 100/200 (‘87), double bronze in 100/200 (‘91), 100 silver, 200 gold (‘93), 100 silver, 200 gold (‘95) and 200 bronze (‘97). That’s an incredible run just to be competing that long – more incredible that she found her way to the podium every single time.
There you have it, my Great Eight. A group of athletes that were not just great once or twice, but demonstrated excellence in the sport’s biggest meet time and time again. In another ten years some of this year’s competitors may be vying for a spot on this list.