As the world looks to the superstars of the 2012 summer Olympic Games in London, we’re looking back at the superstars of yester-Games. Unlike in baseball, football, and basketball, where comparisons between athletes from different eras can be difficult, statistics in Olympic events translate a little better across the ages. Surprisingly, many of the records we’ve highlighted below have held up incredibly well even after a half-century or more. Kind of makes you wonder how Jesse Owens, Mark Spitz, Wilma Rudolph or some of these other legends would have fared if they had access to the technology, training, nutrition, amenities and the sponsorship available to modern athletes.
10. Johnny Weissmuller
In the 1920s, the man who would later become synonymous with “Tarzan” was virtually unbeatable in the pool, setting and resetting nearly 70 world records in distances ranging from 50 yards to a half-mile by the time he turned 25. He made his Olympic debut in 1924 in Paris, where he collected three golds, setting an Olympic record with a time of 59.0 seconds in the 100-meter freestyle. Today, that time would have been more than 7 seconds short of the minimum time required to compete in the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials. Weissmuller later went on to make a big splash in Hollywood, playing Tarzan in nearly 20 films during the 1930s and 1940s.
9. Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Name a sport — golf, baseball, tennis, diving, softball, even roller skating — and this Texas native excelled at it. Zaharias, named as the “World’s Greatest Woman Athlete” for the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press, gained fame in track and field in the 1930s. She won gold in both the 80-meter hurdles and the javelin throw at the 1932 Olympics in L.A. The former event has been discontinued, but her Olympic record 43.69-meter (or around 143 feet) throw would have earned her the 52nd place out of 53 competitors at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
8. Mark Spitz
Before there was Michael Phelps, there was Mike Spitz. In the tragedy-marred 1972 Munich Olympics, Spitz secured seven gold medals in four individual events and three relays. His 51.22-second world record time in the 100-meter freestyle held for nearly three years, but would not have advanced him beyond the preliminaries in the 2008 Olympics. Still, that 51.22 time would have enabled Spitz to outswim 13 out of the 64 competitors in the 100-meter freestyle prelims. Times in swimming have improved at a greater pace than in track and field, and if Spitz had access to today’s training, nutrition and faster pools, there’s no telling what he could have done. In fact, what is painfully obvious in watching Spitz win his gold medals is that he did it without goggles or a swim cap, mainstays of even club swimmers today.
7. Jesse Owens
The son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, “The Buckeye Bullet” burst onto the world stage in a big way during the politically charged 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Owens swept gold in the 100 and 200 meters, the 4X100 relay and the long jump. His 10.3 seconds in the 100 meters pales in comparison to Usain Bolt’s 2008 Beijing performance of 9.69 seconds; in fact, Owens’ 10.3 would have tied him for the fourth-best performance in NCAA Division II in 2012. His Olympics long-jump performance holds up much better; his 8.06-meter leap in 1936 would have given him an eighth-place finish at the ’08 Summer Games.
6. Carl Lewis
The golden boy of track and field in the 1980s and 1990s tied his idol, Jesse Owens, during the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Lewis nabbed golds in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, long jump and the 4X100 meter relay, duplicating Owens’ feat. His 100-meter performance was particularly dazzling; at 9.99 seconds, Lewis outpaced the runnerup finisher, Sam Graddy, by 8 feet — clocking 28 MPH right before he broke the tape. That finish would have earned Lewis a seventh-place finish at the 2008 Beijing Games. Lewis’ world record 9.86 100-meter time in the 1991 world championships would have put him second behind Usain Bolt.
5. Bob Hayes
“Bullet Bob” continues to live up to his nickname. In the 1964 Games in Tokyo, Hayes managed to secure the gold (and tie the world record) in the 100 meters while wearing borrowed spikes and running in the slowest lane. His unofficial 8.6-second performance in the 4X100 relay prompted the Los Angeles Times to 20 years later dub it the “most astonishing sprint of all time.” Hayes’ 10.0 showing in the 100 would have been enough to nab a seventh-place spot among the likes of latter-day legends Bolt, Richard Thompson and Walter Dix and Asafa Powell at the 2008 Beijing Games. Hayes later went on to a Hall of Fame football career with the Dallas Cowboys, revolutionizing the game with his blazing speed. (Note on video: This is astoundingly crisp footage from events that took place a half-century ago. To fully appreciate Hayes’ brilliance, fast forward to the 2:50 mark and watch him blow by the rest of the field.)
4. Wilma Rudolph
Crippled by polio, Rudolph wouldn’t begin to walk properly until she was 11 years old. But, five years later, the track phenom would be a bronze medalist as a member of the 4X100 relay team at the 1956 Games in Melbourne. She would secure three golds in 1960. Her 11.18-second showing in the 100-meter dash still holds up well; the performance would have earned her a seventh-place finish at the 2008 Games. Even more strikingly, the former “Fastest Woman on Earth” would have placed third out of 85 qualifiers in the 2008 preliminaries.
3. Vasily Alekseyev
The Russian-born athlete, who in his prime stood 6-1 and tipped the scales at more than 350 pounds, pushed the limits of what was thought to be humanly possible. In 1970, he became the first person to both lift 500 pounds and more than 600 kilograms — at more than 1,300 pounds — in what used to be three standard lifts in competition but has since been reduced to two. Alekseyev’s Olympic record, set in Munich at the 1972 Games when he hoisted the equivalent of a beluga whale — nearly 1,411 pounds in three lifts — remains untouched to this day.
2. Bob Beamon
It’s one thing to have an awesome nickname, but it’s quite another to inspire a new word. “Beamonesque” came to refer to an athletic feat so unprecedented that it’s overwhelming — which is what Beamon did with his otherworldly long jump at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. The feat was so great — at 29 feet 2 1/2 inches (or 8.9 meters) — that officials were unable to use the optical measuring device and had to opt for the old-fashioned steel tape instead. Although the high altitude helped Beamon along and he had the maximum allowable amount of wind at his back, the jump still stands as an Olympic record. Beamon boasted the world record for more than two decades, until Mike Powell came along and out-jumped his predecessor by 2 inches. Beamon’s mark is still the second-best of all time.
1. Jackie Joyner-Kersee
Twenty-four years after Jackie Joyner-Kersee first set an Olympic record with a 7.4-meter (24 feet, 3 inches) long jump at the Seoul Games in 1988, the record still stands for the games, and is second all time. As if that’s not enough, Joyner-Kersee also still holds the Olympic (and world) record in the heptathlon — a series of seven events, including 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200- and 800-meter races, long jump and javelin throw. It should be no surprise that Sports Illustrated named her the greatest female athlete of the 20th century. Joyner-Kersee’s late sister-in-law, Florence Griffith-Joyner, still holds Olympic and world records in the 100 and 200 meters nearly a quarter of a century after they were first set.