Steve Smythe looks at the history of the women’s 400m at the Olympic Games


While you can understand maybe endurance events not being included in early Olympic Games, it now seems ludicrous that the 400m had to wait 68 years before being on the programme.

The event made its debut in the Women’s AAA Championships in 1933, but no one broke 57 seconds until 1955 and the first world record wasn’t ratified until 1957 when it fell from 57.0 (440 yards) to 53.4.

It debuted in the Europeans in 1958 but had to wait until 1966 for its Commonwealth debut!

In 1962, Korean Shim Geum Dan reduced the world mark from 53.4 to 51.9 but was barred from competing in the 1964
Olympics due to a dispute between the IOC and the Korean government.

In her absence, Betty Cuthbert, who eight years earlier had gained the sprint double and also won relay gold, added to her reputation by winning a hard-fought race in 52.0.

Ann Packer was second and Britain finished second again in Mexico in 1968 (see “British successes” below).

The winner was a huge surprise. France’s Colette Besson went to Mexico with a PB of just 53.8. However, after holding back, she finished with a superb tremendous rush and snatched gold by a metre with an Olympic record-equalling 52.0 seconds.

In 1970, 17-year-old South London schoolgirl Marilyn Neufville broke the world record with 51.0 in winning gold for Jamaica in the Commonwealth Games. However, she was injured for Munich in 1972 and gold went to another teenager, Monika Zehrt, who had equalled Neufville’s world record before the Games.

In a quality competition in which the first six broke the Olympic mark, the East German won in a near world-record 51.08, holding off a challenge from local favourite Rita Wilden.

The 51.08 would have only been good enough for last place in 1976 (see “most memorable Olympics” below).

Marita Koch had failed to start her semi-final in Montreal because of injury, but in 1979, she became the first to break 49 seconds and she won easily in Moscow in 1980 in an Olympic record 48.88.

Jarmila Kratochvilova, who would later set a world record of 47.99, finished second in a PB of 49.46. Brehmer, running under her married name Lathan finished third as three broke 50 in the same race for the first time.

The East European Olympic boycott meant the first six from Moscow couldn’t run in Los Angeles in 1984. Nevertheless, it was a quality affair. Valerie Brisco-Hooks gained revenge for her US trials defeat by making a late run to pass team-mate Chandra Cheeseborough in an Olympic record 48.83. The first four broke 50 seconds.

Brisco – now unhooked – returned in Seoul in 1988 and led early on but faded to fourth as Olga Bryzgina won easily in 48.65.

The times were generally disappointing though. The three Americans broke 50 seconds in the semi-finals, but the fastest was only 50.16 in the final.

Bryzgina returned in Barcelona and was in good form but she couldn’t match the long-legged world champion Marie-Jose Perec in the finish straight.

The Frenchwoman, who was born in Guadeloupe, won by two metres in a time of 48.83. That time was the fastest in the world for four years, but she was much faster in 1996 in Atlanta as she won in a superb Olympic record of 48.25 – the best in the world for 10 years. Many believe her time should be recognised as the real world record now, owing to the dubious legality of Koch, Kratochvilova and others of their era.

Perec became the first man or woman to defend a 400m title. Behind her there were also huge improvements behind her with Cathy Freeman improving to 48.63.

In Sydney in 2000, Freeman was under huge pressure as Australia’s main track hope. In Perec’s absence she won the 1997 and 1999 world titles and she was probably helped by Perec withdrawing and fleeing Australia a few days before the heats after claiming she was attacked in her hotel room.

In the final, in an incredible atmosphere, Freeman, wearing a striking all-body suit, held back in the first 300 metres and then, as a 110,000 crowd roared their approval, she pulled away to win by four metres from Jamaica’s Lorraine Graham.

World champion Ana Guevara dominated the event for much of the build up to Athens in 2004 with a two-year, 23-meeting winning streak. But she lost that to Bahamian Tonique Williams-Darling a month before the Games, a result repeated in Athens.

Leading up to Ohuruogo’s 2008 victory (see “British successes” below), the favourite had been Sanya Richards, who had been sixth in 2004 and narrowly lost in the 2005 World Championships. She was third in 2008 and was gaining a reputation as a choker.

She showed otherwise with a 2009 world title but was only seventh in 2011.

In London, she returned to her winning ways. She was the fastest in her semi-final as she had been in Beijing, but this time she won the final by just over a metre in 49.55.

Most memorable Olympic 400m: Montreal 1976

This women’s race was won by one of the greatest athletes in history.

Irina Szewinska had already won Olympic medals in the 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m and only started to take up the one-lap event in 1973.

She made history by becoming the first woman to break 50 seconds in 1974 and, although she lost the world record in Olympic year to teenager Christine Brehmer, she regained it with 49.75 before the Olympic Games in Canada.

She then reduced the Olympic record to 50.48 in her semi-final. In the final, Brehmer challenged her for 300 metres before the Pole opened her long stride and pulled away for a 10-metre victory in a world record 49.28. The first five went 50.65 or faster.

British successes

In the first Olympic 400m in 1964, Ann Packer just lost out on gold but took silver in 52.2 before famously going one better in the 800m.

Nineteen-year-old Lillian Board was the favourite in Mexico in 1968 but may have gone out a little too quickly and was passed in the straight by a fast-finishing Colette Besson. Sadly, ‘golden girl’ Board, who was criticised by some of the press, died of cancer aged just 22 in 1970.

The next British Olympic finalist was another teenager in Moscow in 1980. Linsey McDonald, 16, had broken the British record in the UK Championships with 51.16 and did well to make the final. She was never to run quicker.

Four years later, Britain won another medal as Kathy Cook, previously regarded as a sprinter, snatched bronze with 49.43. That would last as a British record for 29 years.

Phylis Smith was eighth in 1992 and then in 2000 in the famous Cathy Freeman race, Katharine Merry finished third in 49.72 just ahead of Donna Fraser’s 49.79.

In 2007, Christine Ohuruogu returned from a year’s suspension for missing three tests to surprisingly win the 2007 world title in 49.61. She then again exhibited her fast finish in Beijing 2008. Sanya Richards had dominated qualifying and the first 300 metres but the American overdid it and a perfectly timed finish for the Briton saw her snatch gold in 49.62 to just edge Shericka Williams’ 49.69.

She couldn’t quite repeat the feat in London 2012 and her final flourish saw her fall a metre short of Richards-Ross with 49.70.

She timed her finish to perfection in the 2013 World Championships as her 49.41 finally broke Cook’s UK record and won gold by four thousandths.

» 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 400m feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the May 19, 2016, edition of AW magazine