Steve Smythe looks at the history of the men’s 5000m at the Olympic Games

After three successive global titles at 5000m, Mo Farah should start as a big favourite in Rio. However, Kenya’s Commonwealth champion Caleb Ndiku pushed him until the last 100 metres in Beijing and could be fitter and stronger in Brazil.

The Ethiopians will inevitably field three strong athletes to match the Kenyans. Moroccan Abdalaati Iguider looks the best of the rest.


The inaugural individual Olympic 5000m final was in Stockholm in 1912. However, a 5000m team race was won by Britain in 1900, a four-mile team race was taken by USA in 1904 and a five-mile individual race took place in 1906 and 1908. Britons won gold in the latter two events with Henry Hawtrey and Emil Voigt respectively taking gold.

The first champion was Hannes Kolehmainen, who in running his fourth race in four days edged France’s Jean Bouin in history’s first sub-15-minute run with 14:36.6. That was still the world record in 1920 when France gained their revenge on Finland as Joseph Guillemot sprinted past Paavo Nurmi.

Nurmi was back in Paris in 1924 and less than two hours after his 1500m gold medal he took on Olympic 10,000, champion Ville Ritola. Going close to his world record, Nurmi just did enough to edge Ritola two tenths of a second in an Olympic record 14:31.2.

The pair clashed again In Amsterdam in 1928 and this time it was Ritola who edged Nurmi. Nurmi lost his Olympic record in 1932 in a controversial race which saw yet another gold medal for Finland. World record-holder Lauri Lehtinen led into the straight but, closed down by American Ralph Hill, the Finn swung into lane three to slow his opponent and, when Hill slowed and tried to go inside, Lehtinen swerved back into lane one and again Hill had to slow.

A final push from Hill saw him fall inches short, sharing the winning time of 14:30.0. The Americans unusually chose not to make a protest even though the Finn contravened the rules.

Lehtinen finished second in 1936 in Berlin to team-mate Gunnar Hockert. Eighth-placed Louis Zamperini was the subject of the 2014 film Unbroken.

After the second world war Finland’s dominance ended in London in 1948. Belgian Gaston Reiff started the last lap 50 metres clear but was almost caught by 10,000m champion Emil Zatopek. The Czech returned to win a close race in Helsinki in 1952 as part of his unprecedented treble gold in Finland.

With a record 11-second margin, Vladimir Kuts completed an easy distance double in Melbourne in 1956 with the Olympics’ first sub-14.

New Zealand’s Murray Halberg won an exciting race in Rome in 1960 with a big kick three laps out to become the first non-European winner.

Europeans also lost out in Tokyo in 1964 when American Bob Schul’s 38.7-second last 300m overhauled France’s Michel Jazy, who faded to fourth.

Africa were to the fore in the altitude of Mexico in 1968 as Tunisia’s Mohamed Gammoudi defeated Kenyans Kip Keino and Naftali Temu, who both won golds in other events.

Lasse Viren controlled the 1972 and 1976 races with masterful tactics to give Finland their sixth and seventh gold medals in the event.

In 1980 Miruts Yifter won a 5000m and 10,000m double with fast last laps. He had won bronze in the 1972 10,000m and missed the start of his 5000m heat there, while his country boycotted 1976.

Moroccan Said Aouita easily won in Los Angeles in 1984 in an Olympic record 13:05.59.

John Ngugi became the only Kenyan winner with a brave front-running effort in Seoul in 1988.

The title returned to Europe in 1992 when Germany’s Dieter Baumann sprinted past three Africans to stop the clock on 13:12.52.

In Atlanta in 1996, 10,000m champion Haile Gebrselassie withdrew with sore feet after his earlier effort with the race won by 1500m specialist Venuste Niyongabo, who had run just two previous 5000m races.

Ethiopia’s second title was won in Sydney in a slow 13:35.49 by unheralded Million Wolde with a 53.83 last lap.

The 2004 race in Athens was of a far better quality and saw the 1500m gold medallist Hicham El Guerrouj edge out 10,000m champion and world record-holder Kenenisa Bekele and world champion Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya.

Bekele made up for Athens in 2008 with a superb run, taking the Olympic record to below 13 minutes as his 53-second last lap and 2:25 final kilometre gave him a five- second win over Kipchoge.

British successes

George Hutson won a bronze medal in the first race in 1912 but died in the war two years later.

Gordon Pirie and Derek Ibbotson were the next two British medallists 44 years after that but were well beaten by Vladimir Kuts.

Ian Stewart snatched a bronze from Steve Prefontaine with a furious late sprint in Munich in 1972 and was then seventh behind Brendan Foster in fifth in 1976. Foster’s heat time of 13:20.34 stayed an Olympic record until the 1984 final in Los Angeles.

Tim Hutchings was a close fourth in the Californian city and his 13:11.50 time remains the fastest by a British Olympian.

Mo Farah didn’t survive the heats in 2008 but in 2012, as world champion in front of a wildly celebrating British crowd, ran a superb tactical race. He controlled the closing laps and won by a few metres in a slow 13:41.57, courtesy of a 52.94-second last lap, to complete a Olympic double after his 10,000m success.

Most memorable Olympic 5000m: Barcelona 1992

In Seoul in 1988, Dieter Baumann came from a long way back to snatch silver behind John Ngugi.

In Barcelona, Baumann, who was thought to have the best kick, was hopelessly boxed in on the back straight. He was fifth with 120 metres to run and then, changing lanes, squeezed by Fita Bayissa and Brahim Boutayeb on the inside 50 metres out then swung wide to pass Paul Bitok in the last 20 metres. His last 200m was an unprecedented 24.8 seconds.

In 1999, Baumann, a harsh anti-doping critic, served a two-year ban when he was found to have Nandrolone in his system, It was also found in his toothpaste and the German insisted he had been framed.

» Check out editions of Athletics Weekly magazine from September 24, 2015, for more from our ‘Countdown to Rio’ series

» For the full Olympic history: Men’s 5000m feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the December 3, 2015, edition of AW magazine