Men's 200-Meter World Records

Usain Bolt points to the time clock as he crosses the line in the 2009 World Championship 200-meter final. Bolt finished in a world-record time of 19.19 seconds.
Usain Bolt points to the time clock as he crosses the line in the 2009 World Championship 200-meter final. Bolt finished in a world-record time of 19.19 seconds. Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images

The 200-meter sprint is not a new event. Indeed, a similar event may have been part of the ancient Greek Olympics. In the modern era, the race entered the men's Olympic program in 1900. But the men’s 200-meter world record only dates to 1951, due to inconsistencies in how the race had been run. While the Olympic races measured 200 meters, some other meets ran 220-yard races – 201.17 meters. Nevertheless, 220-yard times were eligible for 200-meter record consideration until the mid-1960s.

More significantly, some 200-meter or 220-yard races were run on straight tracks, as opposed to the modern version, which begins on a curve.

Entering the 1900 Olympics, American Bernie Wefers owned the generally accepted (but not officially sanctioned) world record in the event, 21.2 seconds for 220 yards. Several runners matched that time during the next 20 years, and then another American, Charles Paddock, ran 21-flat for the 200 meters in 1923. By 1932 both Roland Locke of the U.S. and Australia’s James Carlton had run the 200 in 20.6 seconds. Those times weren’t beaten until 1960, although Locke and Carlton’s performances are not considered official IAAF records today.

The IAAF's Modern Era Begins

The first 200-meter record officially recognized by the IAAF belongs to American Andy Stanfield, who ran a 220-yard race in 20.6 seconds in 1951. Stanfield matched that time in a 200-meter event the following year.

Four other runners equaled Stanfield’s time over the next eight years, and then Peter Radford of Great Britain finished in 20.5 seconds in a 220-yard race in 1960. Three more runners matched Radford later that year in 200-meter events – with Italy’s Livio Berruti turning the trick twice – and then American Paul Drayton joined the crowd in 1962.

Henry Carr of the U.S. then lowered the 200-meter standard twice, reaching 20.2 for 220 yards in 1964.

The Icon – Tommie Smith

American Tommie Smith hit the 20-second flat mark at 220 yards in 1966, the last 220-yard world record ratified by the IAAF. Smith then zipped through the 20-second barrier in 1968, finishing the 200 in 19.8 seconds – electrically timed at 19.83 – to win the Olympic gold medal in Mexico City. Smith was the first runner to set a recognized 200-meter world record at the Olympics. The event was also memorable for what came next – Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos raised black-gloved fists and stood shoeless during the medal ceremony to protest a variety of human rights issues. Silver medalist Peter Norman of Australia wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge to show his support.

Jamaica’s Don Quarrie matched Smith’s rounded-off 19.8-second time twice, in 1971 and 1975. In 1976, however, the IAAF began accepting only electrically-timed performances to the hundredth of a second for 200-meter world record consideration. As a result, Smith’s 19.83-second performance was again recognized as the sole 200-meter world mark, until Italy’s Pietro Mennea broke it – at the same Mexico City stadium in which Smith set his record – with a time of 19.72 seconds in 1979.

Smith remained an unofficial record holder as the fastest man in the straight-track 200 meters, having finished the now rarely run event in 19.5 seconds in 1966. Smith was in attendance in Manchester, England when Tyson Gay beat that mark, finishing a straight 200 in 19.41 seconds in 2010.

Johnson and Bolt Dominate

Mennea’s mark stood for 17 years, making it the longest surviving 200-meter world record recognized by the IAAF to date. His reign ended in 1996 when American Michael Johnson shattered the mark at the U.S. Olympic Trials, where Johnson finished in 19.66 seconds. Then, in the first Olympic final in which three competitors ran below 20 seconds, Johnson captured the gold and improved the world record to 19.32. Johnson’s record enjoyed a good run, hanging on for 12 years before a young Jamaican star emerged.

At the 2008 Olympic final in Beijing, Usain Bolt – who turned 22 the next day – edged past Johnson at 19.30 seconds, while enjoying a huge 0.66-second victory margin in the race. Exactly one year later, Bolt lowered the 200-meter standard to 19.19 seconds in the 2009 World Championship final, winning by 0.62 in a race that saw five runners beat the 20-second mark.