Series07 Aug 2020

10 of the greatest athletics comebacks


Historic athletics comebacks (© Getty Images)

As athletics competition continues its gradual and careful return from the coronavirus pandemic, we’re taking a look back this week at some of the many heart-warming comeback stories the sport has given us over the years.

Delving into the sport’s rich past, we will provide 10 inspiring examples to stir the soul over the next five days.

Betty Cuthbert's return from retirement to complete unique Olympic triple

The 'Golden Girl' of Australian athletics was the darling of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics after sweeping to a stunning golden triple in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m.

In a stellar career, Cuthbert also posted world records for 60m, 100yd, 200m, 220yd and 440yd only for injury to heartbreakingly derail her ambitions at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

In the wake of the disappointment, Cuthbert retired from the sport only to later reverse the decision. Returning to the competitive arena, she won a 4x100m gold medal for Australia at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth before setting her sights on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Now competing as a 400m specialist, the Australian sprint superstar delivered in spectacular fashion in the Japanese capital. Describing her performance in the one-lap final as the “only perfect race of her career”, Cuthbert stormed to gold in an Olympic record of 52.01 to become the only athlete – man or woman – in Olympic history to win 100m, 200m and 400m individual titles.

Sebastian Coe's bounce back from illness to retain Olympic 1500m crown

One of the all-time middle-distance greats, the British athlete had memorably won the 1980 Olympic 1500m title and set multiple world records in distances from 800m to the mile.

However, a disappointing 1982 campaign in which he struggled with glandular fever was followed by a miserable 1983 in which a prolonged bout of toxoplasmosis forced Coe to abandon attempts to compete at the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki.

In and out of hospital with the condition, some questioned his ability to mount a successful defence of his Olympic title at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, with some sections of the media particularly vitriolic in their criticism.

Yet after earning Olympic selection for the 800m and 1500m, he proved the naysayers wrong by returning to his brilliant best inside the iconic Coliseum. In the former event, Coe earned silver behind the classy Brazilian Joaquim Cruz before the Briton produced a vintage performance to strike 1500m gold and become the first man in history to win back-to-back Olympic titles over the metric mile distance.

Dan O’Brien makes up for 1992 disaster to win Olympic gold in 1996

Dan O'Brien

The greatest decathlete of his generation, Dan O’Brien went into the 1992 season a red-hot favourite to add the Olympic title to the world decathlon crown he had snared the previous year in Tokyo.

However, disastrously for O’Brien, he failed to register a successful pole vault clearance in the decathlon at the US Olympic Trials in New Orleans and missed out on selection for the Barcelona Games.

The combined events maestro was devastated to miss out but bounced back from the disappointment to set a world decathlon record of 8891 in Talence later that year before continuing to maintain his superiority by securing further titles at the 1993 and 1995 World Championships.

Having waited four long years to right the wrongs of 1992, O’Brien finally secured Olympic decathlon gold in Atlanta. Remaining composed throughout, the US decathlete dominated the competition to earn the sweetest redemption with a total haul of 8824.

Paula Radcliffe earns world marathon title one year after Olympic disappointment

Paula Radcliffe

The British endurance star had redefined the women’s marathon with her jaw-dropping performances in 2002 and 2003. On her 42.2km debut in London, she ran 2:18:55 for the second fastest women’s marathon time in history and later that year set a world record of 2:17:18 on the streets of Chicago.

In 2003 she obliterated her world marathon record to retain her London Marathon title with a staggering 2:15:25 – a mark which was to remain intact as the world record for 16 years.

Leading into 2004 she was a red-hot favourite for gold at the Athens Olympics but after picking up an injury two weeks before the Games she took a course of anti-inflammatories which badly affected her stomach leading into the race. Running in intense pain and severely lacking in energy, she tearfully abandoned attempts to complete the race at 36km.

Derided by some sections of the press following the disappointment, she overwhelmingly answered her critics at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki. Producing a totally dominant display, she struck marathon gold in the Finnish capital, recording a championship record of 2:20:57.

Felix Sanchez wins surprise second Olympic title, eight years after his first

Felix Sanchez

In the first half of the noughties, Felix Sanchez stood head and shoulders above the world’s greatest 400m hurdlers. From 2001 to 2004 he racked up an unbeaten streak of 43 races, winning world titles in 2001 and 2003 and Olympic gold in Athens.

His dominance, however, quickly evaporated as injuries started to take a grip and for eight years he struggled to recapture his best form.

Ranked No.7 in the world coming into the 2012 London Olympic Games, few would have rated the chances of the man from the Dominican Republic regaining his title.

However, he improved in each round and after qualifying quickest for the final in a time of 47.76 he served notice he was ready to go for gold.

Drawing upon his vast experience, Sanchez maintained his cool to strike gold in 47.63 – his quickest time since his first Olympic victory some eight years earlier and indeed matching his time from the 2004 Olympics. A few weeks short of his 35th birthday, he also became the oldest man to take the title.

Christian Taylor regains world triple jump title after switching take-off leg

The US triple jump star was magnificent during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, winning world and Olympic titles with style and panache.

However, in 2013 his form began to slip. Battling a niggling knee injury, he struggled to produce his best form and had to concede his world triple jump title to Frenchman Teddy Tamgho as Taylor settled for fourth.

At the end of a frustrating season, he made the drastic decision to switch his take-off leg. Taylor essentially had to relearn the event, and although he was some way off his best during the 2014 season, he steadily improved throughout the year and won the Diamond League title.

He then roared back to full form during an unforgettable 2015 campaign. Posting the first legal 18-metre jump of his career with an 18.04m effort in Doha, he later bounded out to an 18.06m effort in Lausanne.

He then capped a marvellous comeback year at the World Championships in Beijing. Taylor took the lead from Cuba’s Pablo Pichardo in round four with a 17.68m effort before saving his best until last with a monster final-round effort of 18.21m – the second-longest jump in history – to clinch gold.

After retaining his Olympic title in 2016, he became the only jumper in history to win world and Olympic titles on each leg.

David Rudisha battles back from injury to win second world title

From 2010 to 2012 the Kenyan two-lap maestro was near invincible.

During this golden period, Rudisha set a trio of world 800m records, claimed a world title and in 2012 posted the third of those world records with his iconic 1:40.91 performance to strike Olympic gold in a race many believe to be the finest 800m race in history.

However, in 2013 Rudisha lost his aura of invincibility as a knee injury forced the long-striding athlete to prematurely end his season.

In 2014 he continued to struggle to recapture his form of old and had to settle for silver behind Nijel Amos of Botswana at the Commonwealth Games.

With doubts starting to emerge about his capacity to regain his brilliant form of past seasons, in 2015 he disproved his critics by regaining his world 800m title in Beijing. Running a masterful tactical race he went through the bell in a relatively pedestrian 54 seconds before stepping on the gas with 250 metres to go to accelerate clear of the field.


Mutaz Barshim’s return from injury to successfully defend world title at home

The most stylish high jumper of the modern age, Mutaz Barshim has lit up his event with a series of outstanding performances in the past decade.

A winner of two Olympic medals, the 2017 world title and as No.2 all-time performer with his memorable 2.43m clearance in Brussels in 2014, there has been no doubting the Qatari’s ability to deliver.

However, after undergoing ankle surgery in 2018 questions marks were raised about his ability to defend his world title in his home city of Doha the following year. Limited to a handful of competitions his pre-Doha season’s best stood at a modest 2.27m as he struggled to find his rhythm.

Yet in one of the highlights of the 2019 World Athletics Championships, Barshim ignited the passionate home crowd and summoned up a vintage display. Requiring a third attempt to negotiate 2.33m he then banked first time clearances at 2.35m and 2.37m to strike gold.

Allyson Felix comes back from maternity leave to capture 13th and 14th world titles

As the most decorated female athlete in history, there is very little Allyson Felix has not achieved in the sport. A world 200m champion as a teenager in 2005, the American went on to accumulate no less than 11 world titles (200m, 400m, 4x100m and 4x400m) and six Olympic gold medals before she pressed the pause button on her stellar career by giving birth to her first child, daughter Camryn, in November 2018.

Returning to competition just eight months later she successfully qualified for the US team at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha where she went on to make history.

Forming one quarter of the USA’s gold medal-winning mixed 4x400m relay team – victory in the newly-established event moved her one ahead of Usain Bolt with a record-breaking 12th world title. Felix then completed a record-defining championships by claiming world title number 13 as part of the USA’s triumphant women’s 4x400m squad.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce wins a fourth world 100m title a decade after her first

Quite simply the finest female sprinter of the past decade, the Jamaican sprint queen accumulated titles for fun, claiming successive Olympic 100m titles in 2008 and 2012 and three 100m world titles in 2009, 2013 and 2015 (not to mention 200m gold in 2013). 

However, in 2016 she had to surrender her eight-year reign as Olympic 100m champion, settling for 100m bronze in Rio before taking time out from the sport the following year as she gave birth to son, Zyon.

On her competitive return in 2018 she finished the season joint tenth on the world lists only to re-emerge to her dazzling best in 2019. Blasting to an outstanding 10.73 clocking to win the national title Kingston – within 0.03 for her lifetime best – she later clocked two further two sub-10.8 performances.

Then at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, the diminutive Jamaican at the age of 32, blasted to her fourth world 100m title in a time of 10.71 – the joint second best 100m performance of her career and fastest time for six years.

Steve Landells for World Athletics