In a continuing series, Steve Smythe looks back at the women’s 800m at the Olympics
The event made its debut in Amsterdam, but it is safe to say the competitors in Netherlands did no favour for their gender’s competitive opportunities for a couple of generations.
World record-holder Karoline Radke benefited from the pace her German team-mates provided. She clocked 2:16.8 to take almost three seconds off her record and her mark was to last an incredible 16 years.
The silver medallist Kinue Hitomi was the world record-holder at 200m and long jump, but surprisingly neither event was held in Amsterdam, so she made her 800m debut there.
Many women collapsed after the race and IOC president Comte de Baillet-Latour wanted to ban them from all events, but the committee in the end let them compete in events up to 200m in distance.
Common sense eventually prevailed and the 800m returned for Rome 1960.
Dixie Willis of Australia led for much of the race but came to a halt 150 metres out. Her team-mate Brenda Jones went ahead, but she was caught almost on the line by world record-holder Lyudmila Shevtsova. The Soviet equalled her record mark with 2:04.3.
In 1964, there was a more surprising result – see “British successes” below.
In Mexico in 1968 the favourite was the official world record-holder, Vera Nikolic, but the Yugoslavian felt the pressure of being her country’s only medal hope on the track. She dropped out on the first lap of her semi-final and was reported as trying to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge right after the race.
In the final, the clear winner was 20-year-old Madeline Manning, who set an Olympic record 2:00.9.
That record was destroyed in the first-round heat in 1972 by Svetlana Zlateva’s 1:58.9. In the final the world record-holder, Hildegard Falck, was cheered on by the partisan crowd and she won in an Olympic best 1:58.6 to just miss her world mark and hold off Niole Sabaite by just a tenth.
The standard was raised even higher by the time of Montreal in 1976. World record-holder, Valentina Gerassimova, was among a number of big names who failed to make the final.
In that race 1500m specialist Tatyana Kazankina held back from the fast pace and moved from fifth to first in the final 50 metres. Her time was a spectacular 1:54.94 as the first four smashed the previous world mark.
In Moscow in 1980, an even bigger dent was made in the world record. Nadyezhda Olizarenko won in 1:53.43, while the distant runner-up, Olga Mineyeva, also of the Soviet Union went inside the previous record with 1:54.81. For the first time in any women’s Olympic event, one country took all three medals.
The 1984 final in Los Angeles was of a disappointing standard because of the boycott leading to the absence of the Soviets and Czech world champion and world record-holder Jarmila Kratochvilova. The tall Romanian Doina Melinte won comfortably in 1:57.60.
The eastern Europeans were back in force for Seoul in 1988. World champion Sigrun Wodars of East Germany repeatedly lost to her team-mate and training partner Christine Wachtel prior to the Games. However, just as in the World Championships, Wodars proved the better in the big event and won in 1:56.10.
A few years later it was revealed both athletes had been part of the East German doping programme for many years.
In 1996, the favourite was the 1993 world champion Maria Mutola. She had been disqualified in the 1995 World Championships heats for a lane infringement but in 1996 looked unbeatable again. However, in the final, she wasn’t a factor as Russian Svetlana Masterkova sprinted to victory in 1:57.73. Mutola, who had been fourth in 1992, at least won Mozambique’s first Olympic medal in third.
Mutola was back in Sydney in 2000for her fourth Olympics. She hadn’t won a global event since 1993, but she won after a late move in 1:56.15.
The US entry was unusual as their three runners were sisters Joetta and Hazel Clark and their sister-in-law, Jearl Miles-Clark.
In her fifth and final Olympics, Mutola finished fourth in 2004 in Athens (see “British successes” below).
In Beijing in 2008 the winner was Pamela Jelimo, who hadn’t run an 800m before Olympic year. The exciting front-runner blasted through 400m in 55.41 and at 600m in 84.01 the world record looked a possibility before she won easily in 1:54.87.
Jelimo didn’t show the same sort of form until 2012, where she finished fourth.
Most memorable Olympic 800m: Barcelona 1992
The 1992 final started at a furious pace. World champion Lilia Nurutdinova blasted through the first 400m in 55.72. She was still closely followed by world silver medallist Ana Quirot and Maria Mutola.
Ellen van Langen of Netherlands was only sixth at 400m and fifth 200m out, but she gradually moved up and, on the crown of the final bend when fourth, went inside as Mutola and Quirot moved outside to try to pass Nurutdinova. In the last 40 metres, she again found a gap on the inside as Nurutdinova moved slightly to the right. She squeezed through and won by a few metres in a PB 1:55.54. It was to remain her only major medal.
In the 1960 Olympic final in Rome, Joy Jordan was sixth and in Tokyo in 1964 two Britons made the final.
Ann Packer had finished second in the 400 metres which was her main event. She had only been fifth in her heat and third in her semi-final and wasn’t committed to the event until her fiancé Robbie Brightwell was a disappointed fourth in the 400m.
Maryvonne Dupureur, who had set an Olympic record in the heat, had a good lead as she hit the straight but Packer used her 400m speed and passed the Frenchwoman easily to win in a world record 2:01.1. Ending her career on a high, she never raced again.
In Mexico in 1968, Sheila Taylor, who is still showing good form in 2016 as a W65, excelled to finish fourth while Pat Lowe placed sixth.
In Munich in 1972, Rosemary Stirling set a British record of 2:00.2 but could finish only seventh in a quality final.
The next Briton to make a final was Lorraine Baker, who was fifth in a boycott-affected Los Angeles in 1984 as she clocked 2:00.03.
Diane Edwards was eighth in Seoul in 1988 and the next finalist was Kelly Holmes in 1996.
In Atlanta, Holmes just missed a medal as she fell a metre short of Mutola but ran 1:58.81 in fourth place.
In Sydney in 2000, Holmes was returning from injury and wasn’t expecting too much. She was surprised when she kicked hard on the final bend to find herself two metres clear as she hit the straight, but she couldn’t quite hold the pace in the last 50 metres and was overtaken by first Mutola and then Stephanie Graf. She held on for bronze in a British record 1:56.80, but was delighted with her result.
Mutola won further world titles in 2001 and 2003 and Holmes, who was training with the Mozambique athlete, was second in the latter.
They parted company early in 2004 after Mutola fell while racing against the Briton.
In the 2008 final in Athens, the early pace was fast and, with 100m to go, Mutola surged into a lead and was seemingly going to retain her title.
However, she started struggling and Holmes eased by slightly. The Brit stayed slightly ahead in the last 10m as both Hasna Benhassi and Jolanda Ceplak passed Mutola and finished just 0.05 of a second down on Holmes, who won in 1:56.38. At 34 she became the oldest Olympic 800m winner.
» 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 800m feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the May 5, 2016, edition of AW magazine