Syracuse Online

Best Distance Runners of the Century

My Picks

Published July 14, 2003 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

A 2002 book on the "Top Distance Runners of the Century" got my attention for what it lacked, more so than what it contained. Besides diluting the list by recognizing over eighty "top distance runners", the book overlooked many running legends in favor of sprinters and also-rans.

To set the record straight, I developed my own mathematical formula to select the top distance runners of the century. I defined distance running as 5,000 meters and beyond. To qualify as a top distance runner, an athlete must have set a world record or won an Olympic gold medal at 5,000m, 10,000m or the marathon.

Emil Zatopek (1922-2000) ranked as the top distance runner of the century with six world records and four Olympic gold medals. Born in Czechoslovakia, Zatopek won his first Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 meters in London in 1948, then made history in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki by winning gold medals in the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and the marathon. His dominance on the track was such that he won 38 consecutive 10,000-meter races between May 1948 and July 1954, including 11 in 1949 alone, and become the first athlete to finish a 10,000m race under 29 minutes.

Haile Gebrselassie (1973 - ) came in second with seven world records and two Olympic gold medals. Born in Ethiopia, Gebrselassie currently holds the world record in the 5,000 meters in 12:39.36 and the 10,000 meters in 26:22.77, both set in June 1998. He also won gold medals in the 10,000 meters at both the Atlanta and Sydney Olympics.

Paavo Nurmi (1897-1973) ranked third on my list with four world records and three Olympic Gold Medals. A native of Finland, Nurmi won gold medals in 1920 in Antwerp, 1924 in Paris and 1928 in Amsterdam. His breadth extended to middle distances, earning him two Olympic gold medals at 1,500 meters.

Vladimir Kuts (1927-1975) was fourth on my list with five world records in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, and a gold double on the track at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Born in the Ukraine, Kuts was an officer in the Soviet army.

Lasse Viren (1949 - ) rounds the top five distance runners of the century with two world records and four Olympic gold medals. Born in Finland, Viren won gold medals at the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at both the 1972 Olympics in Munich and the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Viren.s gold in the 5,000 in Munich was as all the more memorable for his victory over Steve Prefontaine.

Next week, we will look at the top women's distance runners of the century.

© 2003 The Post-Standard.

Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. Dr.J. created, webcasting live Every Lap of Every Race. He receives email at