Tergat and Gebrselassie
Haile Gebrselassie from Ethiopia and Paul Tergat from Kenya at the finish line of the men's 10,000-meters of the 2000 Olympics. / Photo by Dimitri Iundt/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Ten Legendary Olympic Track Moments

The Olympic games may be postponed a year, but we’ll always have these goosebump-invoking stories. (Video clips included.)

Tergat and Gebrselassie

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Every four years, the Olympic spotlight shines on our corner of the athletics world and legends are born. Though the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed to 2021, it means past legends will stay fresh in our minds a little longer.

To fill your shelter-in-place days with Olympic highlights, check out this completely arbitrary list of ten legendary moments—we take no responsibility if you go down the rabbit hole from here.

Fantastic Finishes

1964: 10k Final

The 1964 10k was billed as a slugfest between the 1960 Olympic 5k champion (Murray Halberg), the 1960 Olympic 10k champion (Pyotr Bolotnikov), and the 10k world record holder (Ron Clarke). No one was watching Billy Mills—and for good reason. He finished second at the US Olympic Trials, and was a minute behind Clarke in the qualifying heats in Rome.

But 28 minutes and 24 seconds after the gun went off, there was a new Olympic Record and Mills was a household name. 

For the announcing job that cost NBC analyst Dick Bank his job, watch this: 

For the more artistic take from Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad, click here.  

1972:  800m Final

Dave Wottle was a 21-year-old college student who entered the 800m at the US Olympic Trials as a tune-up speed workout before the 1500m, his signature event. Wottle may have been inexperienced in the 800m, but after he equaled the world record of 1:44.3, he was suddenly a contender for the Olympics.

The gun went off and Wottle was already 10m back at the 100m mark as the announcers wondered if he might be injured. As it turns out, he was simply racing like a distance runner.

Watch the touchstone for every coach who ever preached even splits here: 

1980: 1500m Final

Familiarity may breed contempt, but Steve Ovett and Seb Coe were a rivalry for the ages despite only racing each other six times as professionals.

In the 1980 Olympics, Coe was considered the favorite for the 800m, while Ovett was favored in the 1500m. Actually, “favored in the 1500m” is faint praise for someone who hadn’t lost a mile or 1500m race for three years coming into the Olympics.

When Ovett beat Coe in the 800m (Coe’s father memorably said Coe, “ran like an absolute idiot”), it seemed that Ovett was ready for coronation as the best middle distance runner in the world.

For the revenge of the prim and proper Coe over the more dramatic Ovett, click through to YouTube here: 

2000: 10k Final

What Ovett and Coe’s rivalry did for middle distance running in the early 80’s, Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie’s did for distance running in the 90’s. Representing Kenya and Ethiopia, respectively, they were an exhibit ‘A’ for each countries’ claim to be the greatest in distance running.

By the time the Sydney Olympics started, Tergat had five gold medals from the World Cross Country Championships—and had been beaten by Gebrselassie in the 10k three times at the World Championships and once at the Olympics. That’s no slight on Tergat, since Gebrselassie at that point hadn’t lost a 10k race since 1990.

The final lap of the 10k was a fitting culmination to one of the greatest rivalries of all-time and a poetic representation of all the straining and yearning that led to this moment.

Click through to YouTube here and never doubt again how much pride matters to professional athletes: 

Dominating Performances

Bob Beamon: 1968 Long Jump

Watching someone thoroughly dominate the best in the world can be just as thrilling as a close finish. And no one has dominated an event like Bob Beamon did in the long jump at the 1968 Olympics. 

Beamon was the favorite to win, but winning isn’t what puts him on this list. Neither is breaking the world record (which he did by over 21 inches). It was the paradigm shift his jump caused. Put it this way—the officials had to scramble for equipment long enough to measure his jump.

See the performance that coined the phrase “Beamonesque” here: 

Joan Benoit: 1984 Marathon

1984 was the first time the women’s marathon was contested at the Olympics. So the pressure was high on Joan Benoit to come through on U.S. soil. Her main competition was Grete Waitz, whom she had traded marathon world records with the year before.

Despite the heat in Los Angeles during the race, Benoit ran boldly—taking the lead 14 minutes into the race. By mile 19, she had a lead of more than two minutes and the race was effectively over.

The roar as she enters the stadium gives goosebumps, but what really makes this performance stunning is just how long she’s the only runner on the screen. Click through to YouTube to watch history in the making:

Michael Johnson: 1996 200m

Like most on this list, Michael Johnson was already at the top of his game by the time he laced up his famous gold shoes in Atlanta. But no man had ever won both the 200m and the 400m at the same Olympics.

Johnson won the 400m by almost a full second and set a new Olympic record. But the real fireworks were to come in the 200m. By the time the runners hit the homestretch there was no doubt Johnson would win. Watching him pull away to break the world record by .34 seconds was, ahem, ‘Beamonesque.’

Don’t worry about the grainy video quality in this clip, just find the guy way in front of everyone else. Click through to YouTube here:

Usain Bolt: 2008 100m

Johnson’s world record would hold until the 2008 Olympics when it met the unstoppable force of Usain Bolt.

But before Bolt won gold and set the world record in the 200m, he had his international coming out party in the 100m. He was already the world record holder, but this was the general public’s first glimpse of Bolt on a big stage.

It is hard to truly dominate such a short event, but Bolt did it with style—slowing up and celebrating with 20 meters still to go. It didn’t cost him the gold, or the world record. And it started his reign as the king of the track and field world for the next two Olympics.

Watch the race that took Bolt from phenom to legend by click through to YouTube here: 



Of course the magic of the Olympics doesn’t just come from the winners. If you’re in the mood for “triumph of the human spirit” highlights these days, it’s tough to top the Olympics. It’s the culmination of years of hard work—with no guarantee anything goes according to plan.

While Benoit stole the show at the ’84 marathon, Gabriela Andersen-Schiess may be the most iconic image from the race. With temperatures in the mid-80’s, it was clear that Andersen-Schiess was struggling as she entered the stadium for the final 500m of the marathon. But she was determined to finish, waving off medical attention to keep from getting disqualified.

You don’t need to understand the announcer’s language to appreciate the power of the human spirit in this clip on YouTube: 

Finally, there is Derek Redmond—a former British record holder for the 400m who is most famous for a race he was disqualified from. At the Barcelona Games, Redmond was competing in the semi-finals of the 400m when his hamstring tore.

Rather than quit, he continued, eventually accepting support from his father who came on the track from the stands (causing the disqualification for accepting outside help). His finish time isn’t listed in the results, but the image of him and his dad crossing the line is etched on the brain of any parent who has seen the race.

Watch the full race here and be ready to call your dad after: 

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