The greatest distance runners of all time

From the metric mile up to the marathon, we assess the top 10 men and top 10 women

Kenenisa Bekele (Mark Shearman)

It’s the kind of conversation that has likely been had between groups of athletics fans across the world throughout the years – who is the greatest distance runner of all time?

Many names come up time and time again – Haile Gebrselassie, Paavo Nurmi, Paula Radcliffe and Ingrid Kristiansen to name just a few. But how do they compare against one another and is there a fair way of ranking them?

When comparing athletes across a range of events, spanning several decades that have seen many changes within the sport, there is never going to be a completely water-tight method of ranking athletes. But six years ago former AW editor Mel Watman devised a scoring system that allocates points for major championship medals, world records and world No.1 rankings, and used it to rate the top 10 athletes in every event.

We have now brought those point scores up to date and have factored in extra points for medals won at the World Cross. While the higher number of competitive opportunities nowadays makes it easier for current athletes to accumulate points, it could also be argued that athletes today are competing in a far more competitive era than that of several decades ago.

There may also be included a few athletes with a questionable past – some who have served bans and others with a cloud of suspicion over their heads. But to keep these rankings as objective as possible, we have factored in any performances that are still considered valid.

Here we have listed the top 10 of each sex. To see the full top 20, get this week’s Athletics Weekly (October 4).

MEN:

1. Kenenisa Bekele

285 points

Olympics: 3 gold, 1 silver.
World Champs: 5 gold, 1 bronze.
World Cross: 11 gold, 1 silver.
Seasons as world record-holder: 8 (5000m), 8 (10,000m).
World No.1 rankings: 5 (5000m), 6 (10,000m).

2. Paavo Nurmi

258 points

Olympics: 4 gold, 3 silver.
Seasons as world record-holder: 3 (1500m), 9 (5000m), 14 (10,000m).
World No.1 rankings: 4 (1500m), 6 (5000m), 7 (10,000m), 1 (steeplechase).

3. Haile Gebrselassie

222 points

Olympics: 2 gold.
World Champs: 4 gold, 2 silver, 1 bronze.
World Cross: 1 bronze.
Big city marathons: 4 wins.
Seasons as world record-holder: 8 (5000m), 7 (10,000m), 3 (marathon).
World No.1 rankings: 5 (5000m), 6 (10,000m).

4. Emil Zátopek

168 points

Olympics: 4 gold, 1 silver.
Seasons as world record-holder: 1 (5000m), 6 (10,000m).
World No.1 rankings: 5 (5000m), 7 (10,000m), 1 (marathon).

5. Hicham El Guerrouj

162 points

Olympics: 2 gold, 1 silver.
World Champs: 4 gold, 2 silver.
Seasons as world record-holder: 14 (1500m).
World No.1 rankings: 7 (1500m).

6. Hannes Kolehmainen

156 points

Olympics: 3 gold, 1 silver.
Seasons as world record-holder: 10 (5000m), 8 (10,000m), 5 (marathon).

7. Lasse Virén

133 points

Olympics: 4 gold.
Seasons as world record-holder: 1 (5000m), 1 (10,000m).
World No.1 rankings: 2 (5000m), 2 (10,000m).

8. Saïd Aouita

120 points

Olympics: 1 gold.
World Champs: 1 gold, 1 bronze.
Seasons as world record-holder: 7 (1500m), 8 (5000m).
World No.1 rankings: 3 (1500m), 5 (5000m), 1 (10,000m).

9. Paul Tergat

118 points

Olympics: 2 silver.
World Champs: 2 silver, 2 bronze.
World Cross: 5 gold, 1 bronze.
Big city marathon wins: 2.
World record seasons: 1 (10,000m), 3 (marathon).
World No.1 rankings: 1 (marathon).

10. Vladimir Kuts

114 points

Olympics: 2 gold.
Seasons as world record-holder: 7 (5000m), 4 (10,000m).
World No.1 rankings: 3 (5000m), 3 (10,000m).

WOMEN:

1. Tirunesh Dibaba

178 points

Olympics: 3 gold, 2 bronze.
World Champs: 4 gold, 1 bronze.
World Cross: 4 gold, 2 silver.
Seasons as world record-holder: 4 (5000m).
World No.1 rankings: 5 (5000m), 5 (10,000m).

2. Ingrid Kristiansen

176 points

World Champs: 1 gold.
World Cross: 1 gold, 2 bronze.
Big city marathon wins: 8.
Seasons as world record-holder: 1 (5000m), 8 (10,000m), 12 (marathon).
World No.1 rankings: 1 (5000m), 3 (10,000m), 1 (marathon).

3. Tatyana Kazankina

145 points

Olympics: 2 gold.
World Champs: 1 bronze.
World Cross: 1 silver.
Seasons as world record-holder: 17 (1500m), 9 (3000m).
World No.1 rankings: 3 (1500m), 1 (3000m).

4. Grete Waitz

140 points

Olympics: 1 silver.
World Champs: 1 gold.
World Cross: 5 gold, 2 bronze.
Big city marathon wins: 11.
Seasons as world record-holder: 1 (3000m), 4 (marathon).
World No.1 rankings: 2 (3000m), 6 (marathon).

5. Wang Junxia

128 points

Olympics: 1 gold, 1 silver.
World Champs: 1 gold.
Seasons as world record-holder: 2 (3000m), 19 (10,000m).
World No.1 rankings: 2 (3000m/5000m), 2 (10,000m).

6. Paula Radcliffe

100 points

World Champs: 1 gold, 1 silver.
World Cross: 2 gold, 3 silver, 1 bronze.
Big city marathon wins: 7.
Seasons as world record-holder: 9.
World No.1 rankings: 1 (10,000m), 3 (marathon).

7. Lyudmila Bragina

98 points

Olympics: 1 gold.
World Cross: 1 silver.
Seasons as world record-holder: 3 (1500m), 7 (3000m).
World No.1 rankings: 2 (1500m), 3 (3000m).

8. Meseret Defar

92 points

Olympics: 2 gold, 1 bronze.
World Champs: 1 gold, 1 silver, 2 bronze.
Seasons as world record-holder: 2 (5000m).
World No.1 rankings: 4 (5000m).

9. Derartu Tulu

87 points

Olympics: 2 gold, 1 bronze.
World Champs: 1 gold, 1 silver.
World Cross: 3 gold, 1 silver.
World No.1 rankings: 3 (10,000m).

10. Catherine Ndereba

81 points

Olympics: 2 silver.
World Champs: 2 gold, 1 silver.
Big city marathon wins: 6.
Seasons as world record-holder: 1 (marathon).
World No.1 rankings: 1 (marathon)

———————-

» To see the full top 20, get this week’s Athletics Weekly (Oct 4).

14 Responses to “The greatest distance runners of all time”

  1. Bob Orazem says:

    Its a shame you have included obvious drug cheats.I understand you cant eliminate them though.Really interesting, good job

  2. doug says:

    worknesh kidane deserves mention based on her incredible world xc history 9 podium finishes with 2 wins 1 as a junior, one as a senior. world xc the toughest race there is to medal in distance running.

  3. Joe Bigga says:

    There is no way a world record and the seasons held should so vastly outstrip Olympic gold medals. A world record held for 12 seasons gives 44 points. Are you asking us to accept that a world record held for twelve seasons has the more weight than two Olympic Gold medals? Let's take the men's marathon. I can assure that any of the world record holder's in the last five years would prefer an Olympic gold medal. Given Wanjiru's celebrity status after the games and to this very day, it's not hard to see why.

    World Cross country champs gold counting for six points. That's a little high. It's a time of the year some runners choose to not be super sharp.

    This scoring system also handicaps the historical runners who had no World champs or World cross country champs.

    Then there is the historical significance of accomplishments that is hard to measure. There are many that would still rank Abebe Bikila greater than Tergat or Aoutia. I personally consider Coe way above Tergat. I would even put Bannister above Tergat.

    Now let's look at the women's list. Radcliffe is not above Masterkova, in any form or shape. Well I guess not counting the mile world record, took Masterkova out of the equation. And to even see Kristiansen on the list and no Masterkova, is ridiculous. I could keep going on this stuff forever. These point system analyses always miss the big picture.

  4. mump boy says:

    Of course Paula is above Masterkova, she was only world ranked for 3 years total, 96, 98, 99 and at relevant distances Masterkova has 1 OG gold and 1 WC gold. Paula has been at the top for 20 years She is world ranked 9 times at 5k, 7 times at 10k 6 times at Marathon, WC Gold and Silver, Multiple XC titles and medals and 2 groundbreaking World Records. Masterkova doesn't even come close

    • JonMulkeen says:

      Correct. Also note (as mentioned above) that these rankings only take into consideration achievements from 1500m upwards, so Masterkova's 800m achievements aren't taken into consideration.

  5. Mump boy says:

    MAsterkova is nowhere near Kristiansen either

    Greta Waitz should be passed though !!

  6. Eugene says:

    Tatyana Kazankina has 3 Olympics gold, not 2 gold. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tatyana_Kazankina

    • JonMulkeen says:

      Yes, but as mentioned above these rankings only take into consideration achievements from 1500m upwards, so Kazankina's 800m achievements aren't taken into consideration.

  7. just asking says:

    There wasn't World Cross in Paavo Nurmi's days. But there was in Olympics "Individual cross country" and "Team cross country" events. Paavo Nurmi won those in Antwerp 1920 and Paris 1924.

    He should be the number one.

    (You´re also missing another that era Finn, Ville Ritola. If you count Olympic cross country events, he won 5 gold and 3 silver)

    • also ran says:

      I think you're right, and I agree that Paavo Nurmi stands above everyone else as the greatest of the great.

      PS: Three Finns on the top-10 list, that's quite something for a nation of 5m people (albeit that even the most recent one, Lasse Viren, dates back to the 70s).

      • Tapio Saramäki says:

        There should be four Finns because Ville Ritola has been totally forgotten, even though he won five gold and three silver medals in the Olympics, out of which four gold and two silver medals only at the1924 Paris Olympics! Furthermore, he did not attend the1920 Antwerp Olympics, even though Hannes Kolehmainen tried to his best to convince him. He simply thought that he was not yet good enough and, probably, lost, due to his attitude, several medals. As a curiosity, it is worth mentioning that the Finnish saying “ottaa ritolat” comes from the occasion happened at the1928 Amsterdam Olympics in the 5.000 meters, where Nurmi was following Ritola in order to pass him in the very end, but Ritola simply pulled away from Nurmi in the final curve and won the race.

  8. GHM says:

    Excellent list. I agree with most people above 1500 – 3000 is middle distance.

    I would like to suggest Vladimir Kuts in men list instead of El G but in 9th place.

    Joan Benoit instead of Bragina but in 10th place,

  9. Tapio Saramäki says:

    Three days ago, I replied to the message of “just asking”; thanks for publishing my reply. That is why I returned to considering the overall score of Ville Ritola who mostly considered running to be just as a very pleasant hobby. According the existing scoring the following is valid:
    (1) Individual medals at the Olympics: Ville achieved (a) three gold medals (10,000 meters in Paris, 3000 meters steeplechase in Paris, and 5,000 meters in Amsterdam and (b) three silver medals (5,000 meters in Paris, individual cross country in Paris, and 10,000 meters in Amsterdam). This already means 90 points.
    (2) Team medals at the Olympics: Ville achieved two gold medals (3000 meters team race and team cross country both in Paris). This gives according to “World Cross” 12 additional points.
    (3) World Records: 1000 meters; first 30.35,4, 25.5.1924, in Helsinki, Finland and, secondly, 30.23,2, 6.7.1924 during the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. This means when using an extra bonus 45 additional points.
    According to my counting, Ville Ritola should receive 90+12+45=147 points according the existing scoring system. This means that Ville should be the number 7 in the list even though he took running only as a hobby.
    This comment is dedicated to the memory of my great friend Tapani Ritoniemi (combine the Finnish family names “Ritola” and “Niemi”), who passed away at the age of 45 after making exercise while having a heart muscle disease.

  10. Stu Palmer says:

    I like both lists. I was thinking through these lists the other day on a run and just went searching tonight and found this via google. I like that the formula takes a wide lens of achievement and that "old timers" are included like Nurmi, but also Kolehmainen. Ritola needs to be on this list, agreed. The world cross short course years really give Bekele and edge. I know neither Ron Clarke nor Herb Elliot will get points on this system. Clarke was dominant except in the big competitions of the Olympics and Elliot was dominant for 4 years never losing a race at his discipline but both are worth mentioning. Eliud Kipchoge had some epic battles with Bekele and El Guerrouj at 5k and had some success at world cross too and just debuted with a 2:05 marathon this April.

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