Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Athletics: Women's track world records

Paula Radcliffe expressed anger at the recent announcement by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) that world records set before 2005 were going to be erased from history. Many feel sorry for Radcliffe and others, but for the records that have stood in women's individual track events since the 1980s, there will be less sympathy.

100m - 10.49: Florence Griffith Joyner, 16 July 1988

Competing at the US Olympic Trials, sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner continued her remarkable improvement in the 100m, breaking Evelyn Ashford's previous world record mark twice. Some felt that her second round heat time of 10.49s may have been wind-assisted, yet when the IAAF later declared that the findings were "fully satisfactory", the record stood.

Just to emphasise her dominance, Flo-Jo clocked 10.61s in the final, but it was her second round heat run that made headlines. Chopping 0.27s off of Ashford's record - the widest margin since automatic timing commenced in 1968 - the whispers started in relation to Griffith-Joyner's improvement from a 10.96s sprinter to the staggering times she clocked at the US Trials.

After winning gold at Seoul, and setting a new Olympic record of 10.62s in the process, the comments of silver medallist Ashford were interesting. "There's no female who can beat her and maybe no male," stated the previous Olympic champion, who had been beaten by four metres in the final. The Olympic sprint double now seemed inevitable.

200m - 21.34: Florence Griffith Joyner, 29 September 1988

Not content with breaking the 200m world record once in a day, Griffith-Joyner set a new mark in the 1988 Olympic final, a time that seems unlikely to be beaten at any point in the near future. Coming so soon after the Ben Johnson news, mutterings and rumours persisted over the efforts of Griffith-Joyner, with Pat Butcher in the Times writing that the sprinter had gone "well beyond the previous limits of sprinting performance and credibility with her world record runs in the 200 metres semi-final and final."

At the start of the 1988 season, Flo-Jo's personal best in the 200 metres was 21.96s, but as the year progressed, she quickly set about slashing large chunks off of this time. A 21.77 run at the US Olympics Trials was merely an appetiser for what awaited us in Seoul. Her semi-final time of 21.56s took 0.15s off of Heike Drecshler's world record, and when Flo Jo won the gold medal in an astonishing time of 21.34, eyebrows were raised.

Gwen Torrence, sixth in the final, was hardly cryptic with her thoughts on the matter: "Me being a female athlete, I can't understand it. There's something she has got that we don't have." The accusations were relentless, with Griffith-Joyner repeatedly declaring that she had never taken drugs. Her early retirement in 1989 did little to silence the doubters, and even after her sad death in 1998 the debate raged on.

400m - 47.60: Marita Koch, 6 October 1985

After losing her 400m world record to Jarmila Kratochvílová, Marita Koch had more than one reason to celebrate her victory in the 1985 World Cup event in Canberra. Crossing the line in a record time of 47.60s, Koch had cemented her reputation as one of the finest athletes of all-time, setting her 11th individual world record, and seventh in the 400 metres alone.

"I have never felt more relaxed at the 300 metre mark than I did today," Koch revealed after her record run. "I couldn't see the clock at the end, but I could tell from the crowd noises that I must be running at world record pace."

No one has got close to Koch's 47.60s since - Marie-Jose Perec ran 48.25s in 1996 - and naturally the allegations of her involvement in East Germany's state-sponsored doping programme will never go away. Stasi (East Germany's secret police) records indicate that Koch was given male hormones between 1981-1984, so it isn't particularly hard to see why this world record, along with most others set in the 1980s, will remain unchallenged.

800m - 1:53.28: Jarmila Kratochvílová, 26 July 1983

In much the same way as Griffith-Joyner, Czechoslovakian athlete Jarmila Kratochvílová enjoyed most of her success relatively late in her career. Setting the 800m world record in Munich, the 32-year-old would go on to complete the 400m/800m double at the inaugural World Championships just a month later.

It was at these championships that I caught my first glimpse of Kratochvílová. Muscular and, in my opinion, masculine in appearance, Kratochvílová was another athlete who aroused suspicions, especially with the improvement she showed in the latter stage of her career. But, as with Flo-Jo and Koch, Kratochvílová never failed a drugs test.

Koch would eventually eclipse her 400m mark, but one record the 800m world record is one that Kratochvílová is not likely to lose in a hurry. Since that day in Munich, only Kenyan Pamela Jelimo has come close to breaking the 1:54 barrier, let alone get anywhere near Kratochvílová's record. 1996 Olympic champion Svetlana Masterkova summed up the chances of anyone beating Kratochvílová's time: "It's very fast, it's impossible for women to run so fast. It will last for 100 years."


  1. Some things you look back on, thirty years later, thirty years older, and you ask yourself 'How did no-one say 'This is ridiculous'?'

    Makes me wonder what current sporting achievements, with the benefit of thirty years' hindsight, we will have debunked and dismissed in 2047.

  2. I think these marks will still be the fastest times in another 30 years. Whether they will still be the official World Record then is another matter after what the IAAF have said.

  3. Why didn't anyone comment on Beamon, Coe and the Italian 200m record (his name escapes me)?

    Do we think they were suspicious records?