In a continuing series, Steve Smythe looks at the history of events at the Olympics, this time focusing on the women’s 1500m


The longest event for women in the 1968 Olympics was the 800m, but the 1500m was successfully introduced to the 1969 Europeans and 1970 Commonwealth Games and it made its Olympic debut in Munich in 1972 (see “Most memorable Olympics” below).

Tatyana Kazankina lowered Lyudmila Bragina’s record before the 1976 Olympics and then won the Olympic 800m in Montreal before sealing the double in a slow, tactical race with a fast last lap. Gunhild Hoffmeister took silver for the second time while defending champion Bragina, was caught out by the finishing speed and finished fifth.

In Moscow 1980, Kazankina successfully defended her title as she ran a 1:59.0 last 800m and improved the Olympic mark to 3:56.6. She later destroyed her world record with 3:52.47, although in 1984 she received an 18-month suspension for refusing a drugs test.

The Soviet boycott in Los Angeles meant standards were lower as Gabriella Dorio, who had been sixth and fourth in the previous two Olympics, surprisingly kicked to victory. Behind her the Romanian pairing of Doina Melinte and Maricica Puica, who had won the 800m and 3000m respectively, took the minor medals. Puica moved from sixth to third in the final 30 metres.

Romania moved up to gold in 1988. In the 1987 World Championships, Paula Ivan had failed to make the final but she was a different athlete in 1988, some would say suspiciously so, with totally different strength levels.

She narrowly lost in the 3000m to 1500m world champion Tatyana Samolenko. So in the shorter race, she set a furious pace to neutralise the Russian’s kick. A second clear at 800m in 2:05, she went further away with a 62-second third lap and won by a record margin in 3:53.96 to finish less than one and half seconds off the world record. Samolenko finished third.

In 1992 in Barcelona, world bronze medallist Lyudmila Rogachova set a fast pace with a 60.66 first lap but she couldn’t shake off world champion Hassiba Boulmerka, who kicked to an easy victory in the last 200 metres in a fast 3:55.30.

Rogachova took second with teenager Qu Yunxia giving China a surprise bronze as she out battled the former Samolenko (now Dorovskikh). A year later, Qu won the world 3000m title and smashed the 1500m world record with a 3:50.46 that was to last for 22 years.

The Chinese force had disappeared by the time of Atlanta 1996 and the favourites were the World Championships top two Boulmerka and Kelly Holmes, plus world 5000m champion Sonia O’Sullivan.

Svetlana Masterkova hadn’t been thought of a serious theat as her win in the Russian 1500m championships was her first race at the distance for 12 years. However, she controlled the 800m in Atlanta to win gold and then decided to go for the double. An ill O’Sullivan and a falling Boulmerka failed to get through to the final. Holmes stopped Masterkova controlling the race but paid for leading and faded from 1st to 11th on the last lap. Her day would come. As she faded, Masterkova won comfortably from Gabriela Szabo.

In Sydney, Masterkova, who had since also won the 1998 European and 1999 world titles, injured her calf in qualifying and dropped out of her heat. In the final after a slow start, world No.1 Suzy Favor Hamilton pushed the pace but overdid it.

As they entered the straight the American was overtaken by surprise package Nouria Merah-Benida and, as she faded back, she pretended to faint.

The Algerian, another suspicious improver, who had failed to come anywhere near making the 1997 and 1999 world finals, held on. But, only barely as Romanians Violeta Szekely and Gabriela Szabo just failed to catch her. The latter, who had won the 5000m gold, had only been ninth, 200 metres out.

The Romanians were not on friendly terms and Szabo, who had claimed in an interview that her rival didn’t get invited to races because she was so ugly, ended up being fined for slander and had to pay Szekely around $5000 dollars.

Britain won their first medal at the event in 2004 in Athens (see “British successes” below).

Russians were the big favourites in 2008, but another doping scandal claimed three of their big names, Yuliya Formenko, Tatyana Tomashova and Yelena Soboleva.

Nancy Langat didn’t compete at all in 2006 or 2007, but the Kenyan was in good form in Beijing and after 2007 world champion Maryam Jamal faded, she won a lacklustre race easily in 4:00.23.

The now infamous 2012 race was Turkish dominated after world indoor champion Genzebe Dibaba exited in the heats.

The final started slowly with 800m passed in 2:23.97 but a fast last lap saw Asli Cakir Alptekin narrowly cross the line first ahead of her team-mate Gamze Bulut.

In 2015, though, Alpetkin was given an eight-year ban for abnormalities in her biological passport and lost her gold medal.

Bulut is in possession of the title at the moment, but she has reportedly failed a drugs test too. If she loses her gold, that switches to Jamal.

The other medal situation isn’t that clear as the fourth athlete across the line, Tomashova, was banned for two years for test manipulation. The 2013 world champion, Abeba Aregawi, who was originally fifth, tested positive for meldonium in 2016, while the seventh and ninth across the line, Natalia Kareva and Ekaterina Kareiva, have been disqualified.

Most memorable Olympic 1500m: Munich 1972

The first heat in the inaugural Olympic 1500m showed it was going to be some final when Lyudmila Bragina, who had set a world record of 4:06.9 in the Russian championships heats, broke her world record with 4:06.47. Seventeen-year-old Canadian Glenda Reiser followed her home and set a world junior record of 4:06.71 and was also inside the old mark.

In the semi-finals, Bragina did it again and she improved the record to 4:05.07 with Karen Burneleit also breaking the mark behind her with 4:05.78.

Thirteen runners bettered the pre-Olympic world record in the semi-finals. In the finals the top five went inside Bragina’s 4:05.07.

Bragina went ahead after 800 metres and kicked away to won in a sensational 4:01.4. Behind her Hoffmeister and Paola Cacchi took the other medals and were inside 4:03.

British successes

In the first Olympic 1500m, Joyce Smith broke the British record in her heat (4:11.27) and semi (4:09.37) but failed to make the final. Sheila Carey made it, though, and in finishing fifth she broke the previous world record set in the semi- finals with her 4:04.8 after being in a medal position for much of the last 600 metres.

In 1984, Chris Benning and Christina Boxer made the top six and then in 1988, Boxer – then Cahill – just missed out on a medal, overtaken in the last five metres to finish a close fourth.

Kelly Holmes was 11th in 1996 and then seventh in 2000, but she was in the form of her life in 2004. After winning the 800m with a late burst, she started as the favourite for the 1500m.

She ran a perfect tactical race, holding back as Natalya Yevdokimova started fast, and then gradually moving into contention in the final 200 metres.

She hit the front off the final bend and comfortably repelled the challenge of world champion Tomashova.

Her time was a British record 3:57.90 as seven of the 12 finalists set PBs and at 34 she became the oldest Olympic 1500m champion.

In 2012, Lisa Dobriskey, who was a close fourth in 2008, and Laura Weightman were only 10th and 11th across the line, but numerous retroactive drug bans are bringing them higher and higher.

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

» For the full Olympic history: Women’s 1500m feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the April 14, 2016, edition of AW magazine