Games People Play: The 100 Meter Sprint at the 1928 Olympics

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Usain Bolt electrified (again) a massive Olympics audience in person and on television with his unprecedented third straight gold medal winning performance in the 100 meter sprint in Rio de Janeiro last night, besting American Justin Gatlin with a winning time of 9.81 seconds.  Andre de Grasse of Canada took the bronze with a personal best time of 9.91 seconds.

Bolt, winner at the 2008 (Beijing) and 2012 (London) games, and holder of the Olympic record at 9.63 seconds at London and the world record of 9.58 seconds at the world championships in Berlin in 2009, has demonstrated, in most observers’ minds, that he is the greatest sprinter in history because of his staggering accomplishments.

1928 Olympics 100 meter dash
This is one of two tobacco cards, which were from a series of 36 issued by Godfrey Phillips, Ltd., a British firm, in the Homestead collection showing track events (the other is for the 400 meter hurdles) at the 1928 Olympics at Amsterdam

Among the artifacts in the Homestead collection related to sport are two British-issued tobacco cards (more or less akin to our modern baseball cards) showing athletes in the 1928 Olympics at Amsterdam competing in the 100 meter dash.

The structure of the competition has changed considerably in the last 88 years.  For example, there were eight finalists in this year’s race, whereas in 1928 they were six.  The number of heats and their structure was also very different, with runners at Amsterdam running more races prior to the final.

The ethnicity and countries of origin of the competitors is also totally different.  All of the 1928 runners were white, except for John “Jack” London, a black man and native of British Guiana who competed for Britain, and all European or American, except for a South African competitor.  Last night, all of the racers were black and they included two Americans, two Jamaicans, two Africans, a French racer and one from Canada.

Also vastly changed is the speed at which the races have been run.  Last night, six of the eight men finished under 10 seconds with the other two at 10.04 and 10.06.  It should be added that the women’s 100 meter final Saturday was won by Jamaican Elaine Thompson at 10.71 seconds with all runners, but one, finishing under 11 seconds.  The world and Olympic records in this race are held by the late Florence Griffith-Joyner, who timed at 10.49 and 10.62 seconds, both in 1988.

1928 Olympics 100 meter dash reverse
The flip side of the tobacco card.

In 1928, it was a crowded field with all six men finishing at between 10.8 and 11 seconds. Obviously, training, conditioning, shoes, track conditions and the scheduling were among many factors that have evolved significantly over the decades.

The Olympic record at the time, 10.6 second, was set in 1912 and 1924, the latter by American Donald Lippincott at Paris.  The world record, established in April 1921, was 10.4 seconds by American Charlie Paddock, who was raised in Pasadena and attended U.S.C.  Paddock once ran a 10.2 second 110 meter race and it was not for over thirty years that a runner bested that time in a 100 meter sprint.

The outcome of the 30 July 1928 sprint was that the gold medal was claimed by Percy Williams of Canada, followed by London who took the silver medal, and Georg Lammers, of Germany, who won the bronze.  Americans Frank Wykoff and Robert McAllister were fourth and sixth, respectively.

Regardless of the differences in the characteristics of the 100 meter sprints from 1928 and 2016, as well as the fact that the Olympics are far more observed, in whatever format, today than nearly ninety years ago, the scene at Amsterdam was probably pretty similar to that in Rio last night.  Of course, there is no one quite like Usain Bolt now and then (and perhaps never!)


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