The Olympic Track & Field MVPs, Part I: 1896-1960
By Jonathan Gault
July 29, 2020
The track & field portion of the 2020 Olympic Games was supposed to begin Friday. We can all agree the Olympics are pretty awesome, right?
I’m not talking about the excesses of the IOC or any of the other stuff we complain about when we talk about the Olympics. I mean the track & field competition itself: 10 days of the best of the best going head-to-head in every event with the highest honor in the sport on the line. Champions are crowned, legacies are forged, and moments are created that will live forever.
We also get a definitive answer to the question, who is the best? Which is great. But one of my favorite things to do as a sports fan is to debate that very question. So I started thinking about ways to argue about Olympic track & field.
And then it hit me.
Football has a Super Bowl MVP. Baseball has a World Series MVP. We need to have an Olympic MVP.
Of course, handing out MVPs (most valuable player, for those unfamiliar with American terminology) within individual events is pointless. That’s what results are for. But what if we broadened the scope: one MVP for the entire Olympic track & field competition (well, two — one for men, one for women). Yes, comparing across events is always going to produce imperfect results, but that’s part of the fun! If everyone agreed, it wouldn’t be an argument.
So I’ve taken it upon myself to go back and name a men’s and women’s MVP for all 28 Summer Olympics. Some are obvious. Some are not. I’m sure plenty of you will disagree with me. That’s kind of the point.
It’s almost time to jump in, but first, let’s lay out the ground rules. Here’s the criteria I’ll be using to judge Olympic MVP:
- Quality of the performance(s). I’m going to value a 9.63 100 more than a 44.20 400, even if both resulted in a gold medal. World records definitely help your cause.
- Winning multiple golds helps your cause — but doesn’t guarantee anything. We have to use common sense here. It’s far more difficult for a javelin thrower to win two medals than it is for a sprinter. Two golds won with middling performances won’t always outweigh one gold accompanied by a superior performance. Additional silvers and bronzes will also be considered, but the same caveats apply.
- How iconic was the performance(s)? I’m borrowing this from Bill Simmons‘ NBA MVP criteria. Who is the first person you think of when I mention that year’s Olympics?
Obviously, this whole exercise is just one man’s opinion. Think I’m an idiot? Or maybe a genius? Head to our messageboard and sound off: MB: Let the debate begin. Here are our Olympic MVPs from 1896 to 2016.
Shoutout to Olympedia, whose reference tools were ultra-helpful in putting this project together.
Men’s MVP: Thomas Burke, USA
Women did not compete in Olympic track & field until 1928, so in our first seven editions, we’ll be dealing with men only. In 1896, only 10 countries sent athletes, many of the world’s best athletes didn’t even compete, and the 330m track had super-tight turns, all of which contributed to some very pedestrian winning marks — 12.0 in the 100m, 3.30m (10-3.75) in the pole vault, 11.22m (36-9.75) in the shot put. Ok, the tight track had nothing to do with those marks being mediocre as there are no tight turns in those events. The marks were subpar as things took place 124 years ago when both equipment and training theory were primitive and many of the world’s best athletes couldn’t afford to take off and travel around the globe to compete in an amateur event.
Three men won two golds: USA’s Thomas Burke (100/400), Australia’s Edwin Flack (800/1500), and USA’s Robert Garrett (discus/shot). None of their marks were spectacular, so I’m going with Burke, as the 100/400 is the only one of those doubles never to be repeated (plus many of Garrett’s discus competitors had never even thrown a discus before).
Men’s MVP: Alvin Kraenzlein, USA
The “track” at the 1900 Olympics — basically an uneven grass field — was arguably even worse than the one used four years earlier. Still, it was the site of one of the most dominant performances in Olympic history. Alvin Kraenzlein, a 23-year-old dental student at the University of Pennsylvania, became the first athlete to win four individual golds in track & field — a feat that remains unmatched 120 years later.
Kraenzlein won the 60 meters and long jump, but his specialty was the hurdles, where he pioneered the modern hurdling technique (straight lead leg, tucked trail leg). Kraenzlein won both the 110m and 200m hurdles to complete his quartet of golds.
Honorable mention to American Ray Ewry, who won the standing high jump, standing long jump, and standing triple jump.
St. Louis 1904
Men’s MVP: James Lightbody, USA
The 1904 Olympics were a low point in the Olympic movement as hardly anyone outside of the US and Canada showed up (only 62 of the 651 athletes who competed weren’t from North America). The Olympics were a de facto US championships (the US won 68 of the 74 medals on offer), and three Americans won three individual golds: Archie Hahn (60, 100, 200), James Lightbody (800, 1500, steeple), and Ray Ewry (who repeated in the standing high, long, and triple jump).
As dominant as Ewry was, I don’t want to give Olympic MVP to a guy who won a bunch of events that don’t exist anymore (especially when this Olympics also featured a regular high jump, long jump, and triple jump). I’ll go with Lightbody as a distance triple is more physically demanding than a sprint triple. Plus he set a world record in the 1500 — even if that WR was only 4:05 and was far inferior to the mile WR of 4:12.
To be honest, the 1906 Olympics or 1906 Intercalated Games which are no longer regarded as an Olympic Games by the IOC but at the time was referred to by the IOC as the “Second International Olympic Games in Athens” were a bigger deal than the 1904 Olympics. If we were giving out an MVP for the 1906 Olympics, we’d give it out to Ray Ewry who won standing long and high jumps for the third straight Olympics (the standing triple jump was canned), or Paul Pilgrim (400/800) but this is no longer an official Olympics so no MVP here.
Men’s MVP: Mel Sheppard, USA
Sheppard won the 800 in world-record time (1:52.8) and added golds in the 1500 and as the anchor on the USA’s medley relay (200-200-400-800) is the MVP.
Ray Ewry won the standing long and high jumps for the fourth straight Olympics (counting 1906) to bring his gold medal haul to 10 but this isn’t a lifetime achievement award.
Men’s MVP: Jim Thorpe, USA
Thorpe was incredible in Stockholm. A football and baseball star, he dominated the pentathlon (long jump, javelin, 200m, discus, 1500m) at the 1912 Games, winning four of the five individual events. Six days later, he returned for the decathlon. Despite never having competed in one before, Thorpe broke the world record and won the competition by over 700 points (he scored 8412 under the scoring system at the time, which would be worth 6565 today).
Finland’s Hannes Kohlemainen also has a strong case as Olympic MVP (he won the 5,000, 10,000, cross country), but narrowly loses out to Thorpe’s multi-event domination.
Men’s MVP: Albert Hill, Great Britain
Both Hill (800/1500) and Finland’s Paavo Nurmi (10,000/cross country) won two individual golds, with Nurmi adding a team gold in XC and individual silver in the 5,000. Though four medals is obviously greater than two, cross country and 10,000 are so similar that you’d expect the winner of one to also win the other. Meanwhile, in the 100 years since Hill’s double, only one man (Peter Snell in 1964) has won both the 800 and 1500 at an Olympic Games.
Men’s MVP: Paavo Nurmi, Finland
While you can make a case for Nurmi as the 1920 Olympic MVP, it is impossible to make a case for anyone but Nurmi in 1924. Over the course of six days, the 27-year-old Finn ran seven races and won them all, amassing five gold medals — the most ever by one T&F athlete at a single Olympics. Individually, he won the 1500 and 5000 (despite the finals being less than an hour apart), plus cross country. He was also the first finisher in the 3000m team race for the victorious Finnish team. His complete 1924 Olympic racing schedule:
|July 8||5000 (heat)||1st||15:28.6|
|July 9||1500 (heat)||1st||4:07.6|
|July 10||1500 (final)||1st||3:53.6||Gold #1; Olympic record|
|July 10||5000 (final)||1st||14:31.2||Gold #2; Olympic record; race took place less than an hour after 1500|
|July 11||3000m team (heat)||1st||8:47.8|
|July 12||Cross country (~10K)||1st||32:54.8||
Golds #3 & 4; temps during race reached 103 F, causing 23/38 starters to DNF; Nurmi won by 1:24; Finland also won team gold
|July 13||3000m team (final)||1st||8:32.0||Gold #5|
Men’s MVP: Percy Williams, Canada
Williams, who claimed the 100/200 double, was the only man to win multiple individual golds in Amsterdam.
Women’s MVP: Ethel Catherwood, Canada
This was the first Olympics with female track & field athletes, and there were only five women’s events. Four of them featured world records, including Catherwood’s 1.595m (5’2.75″) in the high jump, a competition she dominated. While silver and bronze medalists Lien Gisolf and Mildred Wiley each needed two attempts at 1.54 and 1.56 before bowing out at 1.58, Catherwood was perfect through 1.58 to clinch gold, then broke her own world record on her third attempt at 1.595.
Los Angeles 1932
Men’s MVP: Eddie Tolan, USA
Tolan, the first African-American to win Olympic 100m gold, tied the world record with his 10.3 in the final and set an Olympic record of 21.2 in the 200, finally besting the 21.6 by Archie Hahn that had stood since 1904. Surprisingly, Tolan didn’t run the 4×100 relay, but the Americans won anyway in world-record time.
One other notable WR from LA: Great Britain’s Tommy Hampson ran 1:49.8 in the 800 final, the first man ever under 1:50.
Women’s MVP: Babe Didrikson, USA
With the subtraction of the 800m and addition of the 80m hurdles and javelin, there were six women’s events on offer at the 1932 Olympics. Didrikson won two of them — the 80m hurdles and the javelin — and added silver in the high jump (in which she set a world record 1.65m but lost in a jump-off to Jean Shiley). Safe to say I don’t think we’ll see anyone attempt the hurdles-javelin-high jump triple again anytime soon.
Men’s MVP: Jesse Owens, USA
One of the biggest no-brainers on the list. Not only was Owens spectacular in winning the 100, 200, long jump, and running a leg on the US’s victorious 4×100 relay, but he made Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, who presided over the Games, look foolish by totally disproving Hitler’s theory of the supremacy of the Aryan race.
Owens’ marks in the 200 (20.7) and 4×100 (39.8) were both world records; his winning leap of 8.06m in the long jump would still be competitive today.
Women’s MVP: Helen Stephens, USA
You can make a case for Germany’s Gisela Mauermayer, who was the dominant winner of the discus, but given that she gave a Nazi salute on the victory podium and lost her job after World War II because of her Nazi affiliation, she’s not an appropriate pick in the year 2020. Let’s go instead with American Helen Stephens, who won the 100 and anchored the US women’s 4×100 to victory.
Men’s MVP: Emil Zátopek, Czechoslovakia
No one broke a world record at the so-called “Austerity Games” — the first held in 12 years after the outbreak of World War II — and no man won two individual golds. Two men won a gold and a silver: Czechoslovakia’s Emil Zátopek (10k gold, 5k silver) and Jamaica’s Arthur Wint (400 gold, 800 silver). Wint’s double was tougher, and incredibly impressive: after taking second in the 800 behind American Mal Whitfield, Wint won the 400 by tying the Olympic record of 46.2, just 0.2 off the world record. But Zátopek garners MVP honors here, largely for his utter domination of the 10k. He won the race in 29:59.2, smashing the Olympic record and lapping everyone outside the top three. He finished 47 seconds ahead of silver medalist Alain Mimoun. Mimoun would play the Tergat/Sihine role to Zátopek’s Geb/Bekele, earning two additional silvers behind Zátopek in 1952 before finally claiming gold for himself in the 1956 marathon.
Women’s MVP: Fanny Blankers-Koen, Netherlands
Unlike the men’s side, there was no debate about the women’s MVP in London. The 30-year-old Blankers-Koen — a mother of two nicknamed “the Flying Housewife” (which definitely wouldn’t fly in 2020) — utterly dominated the program. She entered the Games as the world record holder in the long jump and high jump, didn’t contest either in London, and still won four golds (100, 200, 80 hurdles, 4×100 relay).
Men’s MVP: Emil Zátopek, Czechoslovakia
Here’s a rule: whenever you win the 5k, 10k, and marathon at the same Olympics, you’re automatically Olympic MVP. That incredible distance triple makes Zátopek our first repeat Olympic MVP.
Women’s MVP: Marjorie Jackson, Australia
Jackson won both the 100 and 200, equaling or breaking longstanding world records in each event. In the 100, she tied the world record of 11.5, first set by Helen Stephens in 1936, in both the semis and final. In the 200, she tied the 17-year-old world record of 23.6 in the prelims before breaking it with a 23.4 in the semis (she won gold in 23.7, half a second clear of runner-up Bertha Brouwer). Jackson was also part of the Australian team that broke the 4×100 WR in the prelims, but the Aussies would only finish fifth in the final after a botched final exchange between Jackson and Winsome Cripps. As an added blow, the US broke Australia’s WR to take gold.
Men’s MVP: Bobby Morrow, USA
When you win the 100, 200, and 4×100, as Morrow did in Melbourne, you’re usually going to be the Olympic MVP. Morrow took down Jesse Owens‘ Olympic record by running 20.6 in the 200, and anchored the relay to gold in a world record of 39.5 to complete his triple. So Morrow is the MVP but let’s give some love out to the Soviet Union’s Vladimir Kuts who won the 10,000 and 5,000 golds. His 11-second win in the 5000 is still the largest margin of victory in Olympic 5000 history.
Women’s MVP: Betty Cuthbert, Australia
Cuthbert cruised to golds in the 100 (11.5) and 200 (23.4) and ran anchor on the Australian 4×100 relay, which broke the WR in both the prelims (44.9) and final (44.5).
Men’s MVP: Herb Elliott, Australia
The 1960 Olympics produced some legendary performances, including Rafer Johnson of the USA defeating his UCLA teammate C.K. Yang in an incredible decathlon. Never separated by more than 130 points, the two were neck-and-neck the entire way, with Johnson holding a lead of just 24 points with two events to go. Johnson beat Yang in the javelin and kept it close enough in the 1500 to earn the title with an Olympic-record 8392 points (7926 under modern scoring). Abebe Bikila delivered more history by becoming the first African to win the Olympic marathon, doing so in world record time (2:15:16) despite running barefoot.
But I’m going with Australia’s Herb Elliott, who ran 3:35.6 to win by 2.8 seconds and break (his own) world record in one of the greatest 1500’s ever run. Elliott, trained by the famed Percy Cerutty, is occasionally overlooked in the conversation of history’s greatest milers (check out this discussion, where his name doesn’t even come up!), in part because he essentially retired at age 22. But he never lost a 1500 or mile as a senior athlete, won Olympic gold, and broke both the mile and 1500 WRs by massive margins (he took the mile WR from 3:57.2 to 3:54.5 and the 1500 WR from 3:38.1 to 3:36.0 and later 3:35.6).
Women’s MVP: Wilma Rudolph, USA
For the fourth straight Games, a woman won the 100/200 double, and for the fourth straight Games, I’m handing that woman MVP honors.
It’s hard to argue against Rudolph. She tied the 100 WR (11.3) in the semis and ran 11.0 in the final (with a 2.8 wind) to win easily. In the 200, she broke the Olympic record in the first round with her 23.2 and though she won the final comfortably, she didn’t have a chance to break her own WR because of a significant headwind. Rudolph finally got her WR in the 4×100 prelims before anchoring the US to victory in the final for gold #3.
Check back on Thursday for part II, which will cover the 14 Olympics from 1964-2016.
What do you think of our picks? Talk about it on our fan forum / messageboard. MB: Let the debate begin. Here are our Olympic MVPs from 1896 to 2016.