Women's 400-Meter World Records

Irena Szewinska (left) and Marita Koch run in the 1977 IAAF World Cup 400-meter event. Szewinska, who won the race, set three 400-meter world records from 1974-76. Koch went on to set seven 400-meter world marks from 1978-85.
Irena Szewinska (left) and Marita Koch run in the 1977 IAAF World Cup 400-meter event. Szewinska, who won the race, set three 400-meter world records from 1974-76. Koch went on to set seven 400-meter world marks from 1978-85. Tony Duffy/Getty Images

The 400-meter run wasn't a common women's event during the first half of the 20th century, and didn't become part of the women's Olympic program until 1964. As a result, the IAAF didn't officially recognize a women's 400-meter world record until 1957. But the organization made up for lost time during that year, ratifying six world marks by five different runners. The first three records were set at 440 yards, which is 402.3 meters.

A Busy Beginning

Australia's Marlene Willard was the first recognized 400/440 record holder, posting a time of 57 seconds flat on Jan. 6, 1957. New Zealand's Marise Chamberlain joined Willard in the record books – briefly – by matching her time on Feb. 16. Eight days later, Nancy Boyle of Australia lowered the record to 56.3 seconds. Boyle's record lasted less than three months, as Polina Lazareva of the Soviet Union posted a time of 55.2 seconds during a 400-meter race in May. Fellow Russian Mariya Itkina set the first of her four world records in June with a time of 54 seconds, and then lowered the mark to 53.6 in July.

Itkina's second record lasted two years, until she improved it to 53.4 in 1959. Itkina matched her mark in September of 1962, but North Korea's Kim Sin Dan shattered the record in October with a time of 51.9 seconds.

One Winner – Two Record-Holders

Interestingly, both the men's and women's 400-meter record progressions include an instance in which two runners tied for the world mark in the same race.

On the women's side, the event took place in the 400-meter final of the 1969 European Championships. Two Frenchwomen, Nicole Duclos and Colette Besson, finished in a virtual tie for first. The photo finish determined that Duclos had won, in 51.72 seconds, with Besson second in 51.74. Because world records were measured in tenths of seconds at that time, however, both went into the books as record holders with times of 51.7 apiece.

Jamaican-born Marilyn Neufville, then living in Great Britain, lowered the record to 51-flat while competing for Jamaica at the 1970 Commonwealth Games, at age 17. Monika Zehrt of East Germany matched that time in 1972. Poland's Irena Szewinska then shattered not only the 51-second mark but the 50-second barrier as well, finishing in 49.9 seconds in 1974. As of 2016 Szewinska remains the only runner, male or female, to have held world marks in all three outdoor sprint events, the 100, 200 and 400.

The Electric Age

Beginning in 1977, the IAAF only recognized world records in races with electronic timing, so the 400-meter record regressed to 50.14, a time posted by Finland's Riitta Salin at the European Athletics Championships in 1974. The mark fell back below 50 seconds in 1976 as East Germany's Christina Brehmer recorded a time of 49.77 seconds in May. Szewinska then reclaimed the record in June, lowering the mark to 49.75. She topped the mark again the following month during the Olympic final in Montreal, which she won in 49.29 seconds, to gain her third Olympic gold medal, in three different events (including the 4 x 100 relay in 1964, and the 200 meters in 1968).

East Germany's Marita Koch began her assault on the record books two years later, posting a time of 49.19 seconds in July 1978.

She lowered the standard to 49.03 on August 19, and then dipped below 49 seconds to finish in 48.94 on Aug. 31. Koch continued to improve the following year, recording times of 48.89 and 48.60. She reduced the mark to 48.16 in 1982, but then lost the record to Jarmila Kratochvilova of Czechoslovakia, who ran the first sub 48-second women's 400, finishing in 47.99 at the 1983 World Championships in Helsinki. Two years later, Koch set her seventh and final record, 47.60, in the World Cup meet in Canberra, Australia. Koch started fast and ran the first 200 meters in 22.4 seconds. Her 300-meter split time was 34.1.

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Rosenbaum, Mike. "Women's 400-Meter World Records." ThoughtCo, Jun. 10, 2017, thoughtco.com/womens-400-meter-world-records-3259429. Rosenbaum, Mike. (2017, June 10). Women's 400-Meter World Records. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/womens-400-meter-world-records-3259429 Rosenbaum, Mike. "Women's 400-Meter World Records." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/womens-400-meter-world-records-3259429 (accessed November 18, 2017).