Beginning in 1988, track and field’s international governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has selected a male and female Athlete of the Year. There was a good variety among the early winners, with two sprinters, a sprinter/jumper, a middle distance runner, a hurdler and a thrower among the first six award recipients, from 1988-1990.
1988 – Carl Lewis:
Two of track and field’s all-time greats, both Americans, won the initial Athlete of Year awards in the Olympic year of 1988.
The multi-talented Carl Lewis was the sport’s biggest name in 1988, but he entered the year after being upstaged by Ben Johnson. The Canadian sprinter set a world record of 9.83 seconds in the 100 meters at the 1987 World Championships, with Lewis second in a personal best 9.93. The two were bitter rivals and harsh words went back and forth after the 1987 showdown, while fans worldwide looked forward to their expected clash at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Lewis again ran a personal best in the final, 9.92 seconds, but Johnson again set a world record, crossing the line first in 9.79. But three days later Johnson’s post-race drug test came up positive for the steroid stanozolol and he was disqualified, giving Lewis the Olympic 100-meter gold medal. Lewis also struck gold in the long jump (8.72 meters, 28 feet, 7½ inches) and was second in the 200 (19.79) in Seoul.
Read more about Lewis' brush with a drug controversy in the 1980s.
1988 – Florence Griffith-Joyner:
Florence Griffith-Joyner hadn’t reached Lewis’ level entering 1988, but she was a solid performer, having taken the 200-meter silver medal at the 1984 Olympics.
But she reached heights in the summer of 1988 that, 23 years later, still haven’t been matched. At the U.S. Olympic Trials she won the 200 meters in 21.85 seconds, after taking her quarterfinal in 21.77. She beat those numbers three times in the Olympics, beginning with the quarterfinal, which she won in 21.76 seconds. She ran twice the next day, first setting a world record of 21.56 in the semifinal, then lowering her mark to 21.34 in the final.
In the 100, Griffith-Joyner set a world mark of 10.49 seconds in the Olympic Trial quarterfinal. As many subsequently commented, however, the most stunning number wasn’t Griffith-Joyner’s time, but the wind meter reading of 0.0. On a day when wind gusts reached 7 meters-per-second – well over the 2 mps allowed for world record recognition – it was clear to observers that Griffith-Joyner’s performance, while extraordinary, was wind-aided. Nevertheless, the mark was accepted and, as of 2011, stands as the women’s 200-meter world record.
Wind-assisted or not, Griffith-Joyner’s performance was no fluke. She won the Trials in 10.61 seconds – which, as of 2011, is second on the all-time list – then ran 10.62 at the 1988 Olympic quarterfinal. She later won the Olympic gold in an officially wind-aided time of 10.54. Griffith-Joyner also ran in both relays, helping the U.S. take first in the 4 x 100 and second in the 4 x 400.
1989 â?? Ana Fidelia Quirot:
There were no major controversies or fierce rivalries involved with the 1989 Athlete of the Year selections. On the womenâ??s side, Cubaâ??s Ana Fidelia Quirot was simply the yearâ??s best middle distance runner. Previously a victim of two Olympic boycotts, as Cuba sat out the 1984 and 1988 games, she began to show the world what she could do on a big stage by placing fourth in the 1987 World Championships. She rose to the top in 1989, winning the IAAF World Cup 800 meters in Barcelona in 1:54.44, which was not only the best time in the world that year, but was then the third-best of all-time. She was unbeaten in the 800 in 1989 and was also the world leader in the 400. Quirot went on to win two World Championship golds in the 800 during the â??90s.
1989 â?? Roger Kingdom:
Roger Kingdom was already a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 110 hurdles, but he had to come back from injuries in 1988 to retain his title. In 1989 the American’s key rival was Great Britain’s Colin Jackson, who beat Kingdom for the first time in June. Two months later, Kingdom not only out-ran Jackson at the Zurich Weltklasse meet, but he set a new world record of 12.92 seconds. Kingdom’s mark stood for four years, until Jackson lowered it to 12.91. Kingdom also earned a World Indoor Championship gold medal in 1989, winning the 60-meter hurdles in 7.43, and won the IAAF World Cup and World University Games championships.
Read more about sprint hurdles technique.
1990 â?? Steve Backley:
Great Britain’s Steve Backley hardly had the javelin throwing field to himself in 1990, as he was constantly challenged by Jan Zelezny of the Czech Republic (then still part of Czechoslovakia). But Backley held the top spot for most of 1990, winning the European and Commonwealth Games gold medals, and setting the world record with a throw measuring 89.58 meters (293 feet, 10 inches) in July. Zelezny, using a new Nemeth javelin, topped Backley’s mark soon after. Backley then procured a Nemeth and took the record back by throwing 90.98/298-5 in London later in 1990. Seppo Raty broke the mark the following year, also with a Nemeth, before the IAAF declared the Nemeth javelin illegal. All records set when using the Nemeth were voided, leaving Backley’s 89.58 atop the charts – at least until 1993, when Zelezny passed him by for good.
Read more about javelin throwing technique.
1990 â?? Merlene Ottey:
Jamaicaâ??s Merlene Ottey â?? who later represented Slovenia â?? enjoyed one of the longest and most successful sprint careers in track history. She went on to compete in seven Olympic Games, from 1980 through 2004, winning three silver and six bronze medals. She earned three gold, four silver and seven bronze medals in the World Outdoor Championships, plus three golds, two silvers and a bronze in the World Indoor Championships.
She was still relatively early in her career in 1990 â?? even with three Olympic medals already in her pocket â?? when she won Commonwealth Games championships in the 100 and 200 meters. She ran the worldâ??s fastest 100 that year, 10.78 seconds, and was also fastest in the world in the 200, as her time of 21.66 was then third on the all-time list behind Griffith-Joynerâ??s top two times of 1988.