Women's 800-Meter World Records

Jarmila Kratochvilova
World record-holder Jarmila Kratochvilova runs in the 1987 World Championship 800-meter event. (Bob Martin/Allsport/Getty Images)

For several decades in the early- to mid-20th century, many who considered themselves medical experts felt that the 800-meter run was too strenuous for women. As a result, women were only allowed to compete in the 800 meters at one Olympic Games before 1960. But that didn't stop female athletes from running the race at other competitions. Indeed, the women’s world record in the event dates to 1922.

Pre-IAAF

The earliest women's 800-meter marks were recognized by the FSFI, formerly the female equivalent of the IAAF. France’s Georgette Lenoir was the original record-holder, with a time of 2:30.4, but Great Britain’s Mary Lines took the record away 10 days later, finishing an 880-yard race in 2:26.6. Lines is the only runner to be credited with the women's 800-meter record for her time in a full 880-yard race, which totals 804.7 meters.

Lina Radke – born Lina Batschauer – set her first 800-meter record in 1927 at 2:23.8. Sweden’s Inga Gentzel broke the mark the following year, with a time of 2:20.4, but Radke took it back the next year, dipping below 2:20 to finish in 2:19.6. Radke then lowered the mark during the first women’s 800-meter Olympic final, at Amsterdam in August of 1928, which she won in 2:16.8.

Finally Accepted

The IAAF began recognizing women’s records in 1936, including Radke’s 8-year-old mark in the 800 meters.

Radke’s record stood until 1944, when Sweden’s Anna Larsson ran 2:15.9 in Stockholm. Larsson lowered the mark to 2:14.8 on Aug. 19, 1945, and then again to 2:13.8 just 11 days later.

Russian Success

Yevdokia Vasilyeva of the Soviet Union dropped the record to 2:13-flat in 1950, beginning a regular Russian assault on the record books over the next five years.

Valentina Pomogayeva dropped the mark to 2:12.2 in 1951, but only enjoyed the honor for a month, as Nina Otkalenko – born Nina Pletnyova – ran 2:12.0 in August 1951. Otkalenko lowered her record four times from 1952-55, eventually reaching 2:05.0 in a race in Zagreb, Yugoslavia.

Otkalenko’s final record lasted five years until another Russian, Lyudmila Shevtsova, broke it in 1960. She entered the record books for the first time in July, running 2:04.3, and then matched the time while earning the gold medal in the second women’s 800-meter Olympic final, in Rome. Shevtsova’s electronic time in Rome was 2:04.50, but the hand-timed 2:04.3 went into the record book due to the IAAF rules in force at that time. Dixie Willis of Australia took the record away from the Soviet Union in 1962, running 800 meters in 2:01.2 on her way to a 2:02.0 time over 880 yards. She’s the last female runner to set the 800-meter mark during a longer race.

Unlikely Record

The third women’s Olympic 800-meter event yielded another world record, in 1964, as Great Britain’s Ann Packer captured the Tokyo gold medal in 2:01.1. Packer was probably the least likely record-breaker in the history of the women’s event. A 400-meter runner, Packer had mainly used the 800 to help train for the 400.

She ran just 2:06 in the Olympic 800-meter semifinal, which was just the seventh time she’d run the two-lap race. But she took the lead late in the final and used her sprinter’s speed to finish strong and break the record. Australia’s Judy Pollock chipped a tenth of a second off the mark in 1967, lowering the record to 2:01-flat, and then Yugoslavia’s Vera Nikolic lowered the standard to 2:00.5 in 1968.

Breaking the Two-Minute Barrier

West Germany’s Falck Hildegard became the first woman to break the 2-minute mark, lowering the record by a huge two seconds in 1971, down to 1:58.5. Bulgaria’s Svetla Slateva dropped the mark by another second, to 1:57.5, in 1973. The Soviet Union re-asserted itself beginning in 1976 when Valentina Gerasimova improved the record to 1:56.0 at the Soviet Olympic qualifications in June.

But the Montreal Olympics themselves were disappointing for Gerasimova. Not only did she fail to reach the final, but she lost her short-lived record to fellow Russian Tatyana Kazankina, who won the Olympic final in 1:54.9.

Nadezhda Olizarenko of the Soviet Union matched the 1:54.9 record in June of 1980, and then captured the Olympic gold in Moscow with a time of 1:53.5. Olizarenko’s electronic time of 1:53.43 from the 1980 Olympics became the official record in 1981, when the IAAF mandated that 800-meter records had to be automatically timed. In 1983, Jarmila Kratochvilova of Czechoslovakia reduced the mark to 1:53.28 in a race in Munich. Kratochvilova intended to run the 400 meters in Munich but changed her mind after suffering from leg cramps that she felt would hinder her in the one-lap sprint event. In 2013, Kratochvilova’s record reached its 30-year anniversary. As of 2016, the closest anyone has come to the standard since it was set was Pamela Jelimo's 1:54.01 effort in Zurich in 2008.

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Rosenbaum, Mike. "Women's 800-Meter World Records." ThoughtCo, May. 30, 2017, thoughtco.com/womens-800-meter-world-records-3259430. Rosenbaum, Mike. (2017, May 30). Women's 800-Meter World Records. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/womens-800-meter-world-records-3259430 Rosenbaum, Mike. "Women's 800-Meter World Records." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/womens-800-meter-world-records-3259430 (accessed September 24, 2017).