The Olympic motto is the hendiatris Citius, Altius, Fortius, which is Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger” which was proposed by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, on the creation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894.
This fascinating photograph was taken two years later at the starting line up of the 100m at the Games of the first Olympiad, hosted in Athens, Greece in 1896. Whilst the Olympic motto has remained unchanged since formal adoption, the men’s 100 meters race, the first event run at the modern Olympics, has evolved considerably since its inception.
As you can see from the pictures, there was as many ways to start the race as runners – each of the five finalists poised for the final in a different pose. One is crouched sideways as if on a surfboard (Is that Jim Bates? – Ed) Another is resting his hands on wooden pegs. Only one is doubled up with his hands on the track, the starting position now adopted by all sprinters, but considered quite bizarre by the Greeks at the time.
The runner assuming the now familiar pose was America’s Tom Burke who understood that he could apply more force in a shorter period of time than the up right sprinters. He went on to win the race in a time of 12.0 seconds and thus ensuring that the technique became widespread.
For years afterwards, athletes carried trowels so they could dig secure foot-holes in the cinder tracks to ensure that they got the right start, until starting blocks were finally introduced for the 1948 games.
The right start also demands that 100m athletes start with skill to the starting gun – the secret of having just the right instinctive response to the gun, with a quick reaction immediately giving a sprinter the edge, turning centimeters into meters of advantage.
British sprinter Harold Abrahams of Chariots of Fire fame trained with his coach to master the challenge of the gun, rehearsing the starts, blasting from the blocks in a puff of smoke as well as focusing on the right finish, dipping over the line over and over again to get the fastest possible time. One of a generation of runners that adopted a much more rigorous approach to the race than the earlier amateurs, Abrahams claimed Gold at the 1924 Paris Olympics in 10.6 seconds.
Of course, after the tense wait for the gun comes release “out of the blocks”. But immediately, there is another challenge for the finalist. There is barely 3 seconds to complete the 30m of what is known as the drive stage of the race, with a great sprinter calculating his angles perfectly and speeding to perfect velocity with athletic grace.
The star of the 1936 Olympics, who possessed such grace, was Jesse Owens. He broke the world record, which lasted an unrivalled 20 years, despite facing barriers to express his genius because of the color of his skin. Sports scholarships were restricted to white athletes and thus Owens had no scholarship and had to keep him going by working in a petrol station.
From American racism to Hitler’s Nazi ideallogy, Owens destroyed the deliberately choreographed games, designed to show the physical superiority of a white master race, by winning by what seemed like a mile, clocking 10.2 seconds. In second place was his black teammate Ralph Metcalfe.
Owens inspired generations of runners, and at the 1948 London Olympics, the first after the Second World War, there was innovation at both the start and the finish of the 100m Final. For the first time runners could use starting blocks, and as the finalists hit the tape at the finish line, a revolutionary piece of technology would decide who won the race. In Olympic track events, the result of tight finishes had always been decided by the visual evidence of officials in the stands, but now the photo-finish was introduced to help them.
So, the 100m event – the big one, the must see event of the Olympics – watched by thousands in stadiums and millions on Television, has evolved and inspired in equal measure over generations.
Hopefully there is plenty more to come this Summer…