We take a look at the history of the women’s marathon at the Olympic Games


It wasn’t until 1972 that the Olympics decided that women could run as far as 1500 metres. In just 12 years the distance multiplied by 28.

Less than a year before Munich, no women had ever broken three hours. The world record fell quickly in the rest of the seventies with the first sub-2:35 happening in 1978 by Christa Vahlensieck.

A year later Grete Waitz debuted in New York and reduced the record to 2:32:29.8.

A year later she was back in the Big Apple and this time took a further five minutes off the record with an historic 2:27:32.8.

In 1980, the Norwegian great made it three in a row with 2:25:41.3.

After a gap, Waitz showed slight improvement in London in 1983 to 2:25:28.7 but that record lasted only a day as Joan Benoit recorded a stunning 2:22:43 in Boston.

Later in the year with Benoit absent, Waitz won the first world championships easily.

For the first Olympic marathon in Los Angeles in 1984, Benoit and Waitz were the clear favourites. Most thought the Norwegian would hold the edge as she had never been beaten in a marathon and had beaten Benoit 10 times out of 11 when they had raced each other.

The American was also recovering from undergoing knee surgery just 17 days before the Olympic trials.

The race itself for such an historic one was rather anti-climatic. Benoit pushed hard and broke clear in the fourth kilometre. Waitz thought it was a bluff and too early so let her go.

By 25km the margin was almost two minutes. The Norwegian then sped up and closed some of the gap but was still 86 seconds behind at the finish.

European champion Rosa Mota won the battle for third in defeating future world record-holder Ingrid Kristiansen and in doing so, won Portugal’s first ever women’s athletics medal.

Apart from the winner, much of the attention in the end was focused on the 37th finisher. That was Gabriela Anderson-Schiess. She collapsed on the last lap but staggered on and took almost six minutes to complete the last 400m.

In 1988 in Seoul there was no Benoit or Waitz but Mota, who was the 1987 world champion, was back. She had won the world title by a staggering seven minutes. In Korea, she made a late move and won by 13 seconds from Australia’s Commonwealth champion Lisa Martin.

In Barcelona in 1992, the race looked a lot more open and so it proved. Madina Biktagirova broke clear after halfway and led by over half a minute before Valentina Yegorova caught her and took command and built up a good lead. She was reeled in by Yuko Arimori and it was all decided on the final hill when the Russian attacked but she held on to win by just eight seconds.

Biktagirova was fourth across the line but was disqualified for using a banned stimulant.

There was also a shock in 1996. Uta Pippig, who had won three successive Boston Marathons, pushed clear at halfway but was soon caught by a pack including 1995 world champion Manuela Machado. In the last few miles though it was Fatuma Roba who went ahead and won by exactly two minutes from Yegorova. Arimori also won another medal in third.

Japan did even better in the 2000 Games in Sydney in another close race. Naoko Takahashi had a close battle with Lidia Simon but won with a strong finish to win in 2:23:14. A year later she became the first woman to break 2:20 with 2:19:46.

By the time of Athens in 2004, the clear favourite was Paula Radcliffe, who had improved the world record to an extraordinary 2:15:25.

However injury and then severe stomach problems meant Radcliffe was struggling after halfway, not helped by 35 centigrade heat and she dropped out around the 35 kilometre mark.

The title went to another Japanese Mizuki Noguchi who proved the strongest in defeating world champion Catherine Ndereba and former world record-holder Catherine Ndereba.

Radcliffe returned but again wasn’t at her best in 1992 in Beijing and struggled in 23rd in 2:32:38.

Ndereba again finished second but was well beaten by Constantina Dita Tomescu who put a big move in mid race as she had done in other major races. This time though she kept going to cause a huge upset and won by 22 seconds as China took third and fourth places.

London 2012 was a slow tactical race but Tiki Gelana finished the strongest to win in an Olympic record 2:23:07 just five seconds ahead of Priscah Jeptoo. It was a quality race with the first 20 breaking 2:28.

British successes

Britain fielded a far from youthful team in the first Olympics in 1984 and Priscilla Welch at the age of 39 produced a quality performance to finish sixth in 2:28:54.

Joyce Smith, who was 46 and who had also run in the inaugural Olympic 1972, finished 11th. Sarah Rowell finished 14th and it’s the only time Britain were to have three in the top 15.

In Seoul in 1988, Angie Pain’s 10th in 2:30:51 led the way while in Barcelona in 1992, it was Sally Eastall’s 2:41:20.

Liz McColgan was one of the favourites in 1996 but could only finish 16th in a disappointing 2:34:30.

Sydney in 2000 was even more disappointing with just one starter and Marian Sutton 26th in 2:34:33.

In 2004, Britain were in a medal position for much of the race but a less than healthy Radcliffe dropped out leaving Liz Yelling leading the way in 25th in 2:40:13.

Radcliffe finished at Beijing in 2008 but had to stop to stretch at one point as ahead of her, Mara Yamauchi produced the fastest and most competitive Olympic run by a British woman, clocking 2:27:29 and while that matched Welch’s sixth, she was only 45 seconds off a gold medal and 22 seconds from a bronze.

Yamauchi returned in 2012 but had to drop out as Freya Murray was the top Briton in 44th in 2:32:14.

» 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 marathon feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the April 21, 2016, edition of AW magazine