This Sunday, June 4, when the death of the great Jim Hines was known, nothing more opportune than to remember that moment of glory, for him and for the sprinters, which was the 1968 season. In that year, he became the first man in history to run the 100 meters flat under 10 seconds, both with manual control – as it was used until then – and with electronic control, which would become widespread in the following decades. Hines reached the summit in those wonderful Olympic Games in Mexico, where he won one of the most exciting 100-meter races in history and also the 4x100 relay, to immediately get away from the tracks, when he was just 22 years old.
Although a century ago it could be considered "the 10 seconds" as the dream barrier in athletics, at the beginning of the 60s it was available to the best sprinters. Armin Hary, German, was the first to "nail" the 10s0 record, on June 21, 1960 in Zurich, to ratify weeks later his hierarchy with the Olympic gold in Rome. Several names followed in his wake throughout that decade: an American (Bob Hayes, heir to the Olympic gold in Tokyo), a Canadian (Harry Jerome), a Cuban (Enrique Figuerola), a South African (Paul Nash, although his country was excluded from international competitions). And a Venezuelan, Horacio Estéves, who accomplished that feat in 1964 in Caracas.
But the 1968 season, with a new generation of gifted Americans – and several more who were trained on the same tracks – marked a real revolution in the specialty. Rarely in the history of athletics (perhaps never) could such a framework of quality and competitiveness be offered in the queen event.
It must be set as an emblematic date on June 20 in Sacramento, California, where the United States Championship, known at that time as AAU Champs, was played. and held at Hughes Stadium.
Already in the qualifiers, Hines – one of those who had equaled the world mark of 10.0 in the previous season in the California Relay – warned that something big could happen there, running in 9s8, although with a favorable wind. In another series, two men equaled the record of 10s0 within the regulatory frameworks: Charlie Greene and Frenchman Roger Bambuck.
And the first semifinal arrived, played at 21.15 at night with a slightly favorable wind of 0.8 meters per second. There Hines and the second, Ronnie Ray Smith, ran in 9 seconds and 9 tenths, thus crossing the historic border of 10 seconds. The four athletes who occupied the next positions scored 10s0, which did not even serve as consolation (Mel Pender, Larry Questad, Kirk Clayton and Ernest Provost). Five minutes later, Greene – Hines' archrival – equalled the new world record of 9s9, leaving Jamaican Lenox Miller and Bambuck with a tenth more.
The final was played with a tailwind and, perhaps, the "gale" of brands had already been fulfilled. The champion was Greene, earning his eighth victory over Hines in eight matches. Both scored 10s0, leaving Miller, Bambuck, Ronnie Ray Smith and Pender in 10.1.
If Jesse Owens' famous day in Ann Arbor in 1935 is remembered as "the day of records" (he improved six world records in less than two hours), what happened in Sacramento in 1968 is considered since then "The night of speed".
Those performances provoked euphoria in the athletic environment of the United States before the Olympic prospects – a euphoria that would be confirmed months later in the altitude of Mexico – while the European press interpreted them with some skepticism, questioning a certain "permissiveness" of the judges in the exits and, even, in the manual timing.
The truth is that the Sacramento track had a reputation for being very fast – a pressed charcoal – and together with the ideal climate and competitive environment produced one of the most spectacular nights that is remembered in world speed.
During the U.S. Olympic qualifiers (the famous Trials), Hines and Greene secured their place for the Mexico Games but the other man of the 9.9 games, Ronnie Ray Smith, was surpassed by Mel Pender and could only compete for the relay.
The altitude of Mexico City -2,248 meters above sea level- and the synthetic track augured new feats for the sprinters.
The opening round, which nine eight heats on Sunday, October 13, 1968, was very quiet and there Greene, with 10s0 and with wind in favor, was the fastest. One of those who made it through that round was an Argentine, Andres "Pelusa" Calonje, who clocked 10.44 seconds and came second in the ninth heat. This allowed him to participate in the quarterfinals where he ran into none other than Miller, Hines and Figueroa. The Argentine came 5th with 10s3 (whose electronic conversion of 10s39 was going to remain a quarter of a century as a national record) Miller and Hines scored 10s1, being third another portent as the Cuban Figuerola. Again Miller, with his 10s0 in the fourth heat, was the fastest of this round, which kept all the favorites in competition, ready for the definitions of the next day.
Already in the semifinals, Hines "charged all his batteries", won the first with 10.0, followed by Bambuck and Jerome to a tenth, with Pender fourth in 10.2. And Figuerola, fifth with the same time, was left out, unable to repeat his Tokyo performance when he had been runner-up. In the other semifinal, Greene and Miller also scored 10.1, as did Cuba's Pablo Montes. And the revelation was an athlete from Madagascar named Jean Ravelomanantsoa, who got his passport to the final.
For the first time in Olympic history, all 100-meter dash finalists were black. The surprising African produces a false start (today, he would have been automatically disqualified). But the second outing is good for everyone, including Hines, who didn't stand out for that technical detail. He was going for the third lift, with Miller on his right and Montes on the left, At 50 meters, Hines is in the position of leader (relieving Pender) and was not going to give it anymore.
Jim Hines won the gold medal with 9 seconds and 9 tenths, which equaled the world record set months earlier in Sacramento. The Jamaican Lennox Miller managed to "insert" himself among the colossi of the United States and was runner-up with 10s0, the same time as Charles Green who practically dived at the finish to secure a place on the podium. The Cuban Pablo Montes was 4th with 10s1, the same mark as Bambuck and Pender – the other American, who was already 31 years old and had also reached the final of Tokyo 1964 – was sixth with 10s1.
Days later, thethree Americans and Ronnie Ray Smith teamed up for an unbeatable 4x100 relay, which he also won with a world record: 38s2 (manual, later converted to 38s24 electronic) The record of 9s9 in the individual of the 100 meters was going to lose some validity since, from the 70s, Electronic timing was definitively implemented.
And he set as a world record the 9 seconds and 95 hundredths of Hines in that same race.
If we remember that he was untouchable for fifteen years – until his compatriot Calvin Smith improved it by two hundredths on July 3, 1983 at Air Academy, near Colorado Springs – the quality of that brand is ratified.
Smith beat him at altitude and only four years later was a sprinter able to improve that record in a city at sea level. It was Carl Lewis with his 9.87 at the World Championships in Rome. A race that, by the way, did not win in the first instance, but had marked the appearance of a certain Ben Johnson with his 9s83.
Some time later, when the doping system around the Canadian was revealed, all his marks were annulled. Lewis became the great of his time, not only for his records but for being the first to retain the Olympic title (Los Angeles 84-Seoul 88), feats that surpassed in every way another phenomenon called Usain Bolt and his 9s58. But this is fresh history.
The story of lightning
James Ray (Jim) Hines was born on September 10, 1946, in Dumas, Arkansas. But he grew up in Oakland, California, where his father worked in construction and his mother in a cannery. Jim was the ninth of twelve children from that marriage.
When Jim was a student at Clymonds High School and playing baseball, he caught the attention of the athletic trainer: in a short time he became the fastest athlete among high school students in the United States. Thus he obtained his scholarship to the "Tigers" of the Texas Southern University, based in Houston, where he was trained by another great as Bobby Morrow, a white Texan who was consecrated in the Melbourne Games (1956) with three gold medals: 100 and 200 meters, and the short relay.
Hines' progression didn't stop in college athletics, where he began his duels with Charlie Greene, also a native of Arkansas but competing for the University of Nebraska.
Like so many other top athletes in his country, in a sport that was absolutely amateur, he moved away immediately to try his luck in American football. Perhaps he wanted to imitate his predecessor in Olympic gold, Bob Hayes, who went on to win a Super Bowl in football. Hines signed a contract with the Miami Dolphins, but his season was brief and ended up signing with the Kansas City Chiefs. He retired soon. He attempted an isolated return to athletics in a fledgling professional league in 1974, but he didn't insist there either.
When the sport was only a memory for him – although he received all the honors, including the induction into the Hall of Fame – he established a foundation with his name, giving protection to abused women and boys and the homeless.
To date, 173 men ran the 100 meters flat, with electronic timing and in regulatory conditions, under 10 seconds. But Jim Hines has an unparalleled distinction: he was the first of all to achieve it. No one will be able to take away that glory.