In the next part of our series, Steve Smythe looks at the championships held in Greece

Athens saw some great competitive athletics but it didn’t really match up to the previous championships and there were no world records in an event held in hot weather.

Attendances were largely disappointing and the supporters’ knowledge of athletics reached an all-time low.

Winners received $80,000 for their gold medals. USA were the top nation but they were down on their 1995 dominance, winning seven golds to their 12 in Sweden and that later became six as they retrospectively lost their 4x400m gold.


While there were no records, there could have been. Ato Boldon ran 9.87 in his 100m quarter-final despite easing down and just missed Donovan Bailey’s world mark by just 0.03 of a second.

In the final, Boldon could only finish a poor fifth in 10.02 as Maurice Greene won in 9.86 to go equal third all-time. Bailey was second but went one better in the 4x100m as Canada won their third successive major sprint relay title. They won in 37.86 with USA not getting through their first round heat.

In the 200m, Boldon atoned for his poor short sprint final with a two metre win over defending champion Frankie Fredericks in a windy 20.02.

Michael Johnson only got into the 400m when the IAAF made a late change to the rules to allow defending champions to compete after he missed the US trials. Not at full fitness, he was lucky to survive his quarter-final when he eased down prematurely and missed automatic qualifying and only got through as a fastest loser by five hundredths of a second.

In the final, he was only sixth halfway in 21.64 as Iwan Thomas blazed a PB 21.00 ahead of fellow Brit Jamie Baulch’s 21.32.

Thomas still led at 300m in 32.09 with Johnson up to third but it was the American who was strongest and he won in 44.12 as Thomas faded to sixth.

USA also won gold in the 110m hurdles through another defending Johnson, this time Allan. He won easily in 12.93 to threaten Colin Jackson’s 12.91 world record.

Johnson also won a 4x400m gold as he anchored USA in the heats. See ‘Most exciting contest’.

Enigmatic Stephane Diagana, who had missed Atlanta through injury, won his heat in a season’s best 48.44 which he improved to 48.14 in his semi to 47.70 in the final.


Wilson Kipketer easily retained the 800m, controlling it throughout after a 23.7 first 200m, and winning by six metres in 1:43.38.

Noureddine Morceli failed to keep his 1500m crown though as he was undone by Hicham El Guerrouj’s penultimate lap acceleration and the Moroccan won by eight metres in 3:35.83, with a 52.48 last lap. Morceli was only fourth.

The mid-race acceleration in the 5000m was also astonishing. Daniel Komen ran a sub-58 lap after 3000m followed by a 58.38. His last 3000m was a remarkable 7:33.9.

Over 10,000m, Haile Gebrselassie kept his notable speed until the end, sprinting away before the bell and completing a 55.87 last lap to win his third title from Paul Tergat.

Kenya fared better in the steeplechase with a clean sweep as Wilson Boit Kipketer blasted a 57.5 last lap over the barriers to deny Moses Kiptanui a fourth consecutive title.

Spain dominated the marathon with Abel Anton outkicking 1995 winner Martin Fiz and they also won the World Cup team race.

Mexico won the 20km walk through Daniel Garcia while Poland’s Olympic champion Robert Korzeniowski narrowly won the 50km walk.


Javier Sotomayor won his second title and fourth medal with a 2.37m high jump clearance. Dalton Grant, who had a season’s best of 2.28m, incredibly entered the competition at 2.32m, which he cleared first time, but he couldn’t go higher and finished fourth.

Another winning world record-holder was Sergey Bubka in the pole vault. The Ukrainian wasn’t fully fit with an Achilles problem, but he still jumped 6.01m by a big margin to win his sixth successive title, spread over 14 years.

Ivan Pedroso defended in the long jump, winning with a modest 8.42m, closely pursued by Erick Walder’s 8.38m.

Cuba also won the triple jump through Yoelbi Quesada’s national record 17.85m. It appeared that Hungary had won the shot through Aleksandr Bagach’s 21.47m but he was disqualified because of a stimulant and the title went to 1995 winner John Godina’s 21.44m.

Lars Riedel was another defender but he claimed his fourth title as he won with a 68.54m throw with Godina fifth.

Germany also won the hammer in an exciting contest that saw the lead change 12 times with Heinz Weis winning his nation’s first global title since the 1936 Olympics with a final round 81.78m.

Marius Corbett, ranked just 19th of the 40 competitors, shocked his javelin opponents with an African record 88.40m, adding four metres and 50cm to his PB.

With Dan O’Brien missing from the decathlon, the title went to Czech Tomas Dvorak, who scored a near European record 8837 to go fourth all-time.


The women’s 100m was a very close race with Marion Jones’ 10.83 just edging Zhanna Pintusevich, who thought she had won and was on a lap of honour when she saw she was only second.

Pintusevich did win the 200m though in a slow 22.32 as Merlene Ottey tied up and lost a clear lead but she did win a record 14th World Championships medal and at 37 became the oldest ever women’s medallist at any event.

In the 1995 400m, Cathy Freeman (pictured) blasted the first 200m and blew up, but in Athens she was last at 100m and sixth at 200m but came through to win narrowly in 49.77.

USA came close to the world 4x100m record with a 41.47 but Germany shocked them in the 4x400m courtesy of Grit Breuer’s 48.69.

Ludmila Engquist, who won the 1991 100m hurdles for the Soviets as Lyudmila Narozhilenko, won in Greece for Sweden with a 12.50.

Kim Batten and Tonja Buford who bettered the world record in Sweden, returned for the 400m hurdles but could only finish third and sixth.

Nezha Bidouane, who entered the straight a distant fourth, powered through to win in 52.97, taking half a second off her PB and African record from the semi.


In 1995, Ana Quirot won 800m gold in the absence of huge favourite Maria Mutola, who was disqualified from her semi and two years later, Quirot followed Mutola throughout and kicked past 50 metres out as Mutola faded to third.

The 1500m was expected to be a clash between Olympic champion Svetlana Masterkova and Kelly Holmes but both were injured and failed to make the final which was surprisingly won in a modest 4:04.24 with an average 60.9 last lap by Carla Sacramento.

Defending champion Sonia O’Sullivan failed to make the 5000m final and 1995 fourth-placer Gabriela Szabo won with a 29.5 last 200m, with Paula Radcliffe fourth.

In the 10,000m, held in hot conditions, Sally Barsosio won Kenya’s first ever global women’s title breaking clear of Olympic champion Fernanda Ribiero.

The Portuguese defending champion Manuela Machado also finished second in the marathon as Hiromi Suzuki won easily in her first victory over 26.2 miles in her third race.

Annarita Sidoti pulled off a surprise victory in the last ever women’s 10km walk.


The women’s high jump was a poor standard event with 1.96m sufficient for a medal and Norway’s Hanne Haugland, who was sixth in 1995, won with a 1.99m leap. Lyudmila Galkina won the long jump with 7.05m as the Greek crowd, delighted with Niki Xanthou’s silver, unsportingly whistled her opponents.

Sarka Kasparkova won the triple jump with the world’s second best ever jump of 15.20m.

Beatrice Faumuina survived two fouls in her first two throws in both qualifying and the final but won a then rare New Zealand title with a 66.82m throw.

Astrid Kumbernuss defended her shot title with 20.71m, but won by only five centimetres.

The javelin was also close as Trine Hattestad’s first round 68.78m held off Joanna Stone’s last round 68.64m.

Sabine Braun, who had been second in 1993, easily won the heptathlon.


Britain left Athens with five silvers, but gained a gold at a later date – see ‘Most exciting contest’.

Jonathan Edwards wasn’t in his 1995 shape but put up a good defence of his triple jump crown with his last three jumps in the 17.57m to 17.67m range, though had to settle for silver. The 1993 champion Jackson was also second in the hurdles and pleased with his best run for three years.

Steve Backley finally beat his big global rival Jan Zelezny but his 86.80m last round throw could only move him up from fifth to second. That denied team-mate Mick Hill, who threw 86.54m, a medal.

Another former world record-holder, Sally Gunnell, impressed with the second fastest 400m hurdles heat time but injured herself warming down and scratched from the semis and retired.

Denise Lewis won a heptathlon silver and Britain’s 4x100m team won bronze.

Ashia Hansen jumped 14.77m in qualifying which would have won bronze in the final but an injured back meant she could only finish fifth.


With three 400m finalists, Britain had hoped to push USA close in the relay and the chances increased with no Johnson.

In the event, Thomas came in a slightly disappointing third on leg one (44.8) behind USA and Jamaica. Roger Black wasn’t in the same form as in 1991 or his Olympic silver medal form of 1996, and this time he couldn’t match his nemesis in Japan, Antonio Pettigrew, who ran 43.1 to Black’s 44.2 as Britain stayed third.

On leg three, Baulch ran one of the fastest ever first relay half laps to shoot past first Jamaica and the USA’s Chris Jones. He paid for it spectacularly though, tying up badly but still ran 44.08 to hand over about six metres down.

Mark Richardson, who had just missed a medal in the 400m with a 44.47 PB, ran a superb anchor with 43.57 but fell a few metres short of Tyree Washington’s 44.00. Britain’s 2:56.65 just missed their UK record from Atlanta the previous year.

Eleven years later, Pettigrew admitted to drug taking and USA were disqualified and so Britain finally won gold by just a tenth of a second with Jamaica’s anchor Davian Clarke timed at 43.51.


The 1997 World Championships were held over nine days, and many thought there were too many athletes and too many races even though numbers were slightly down on 1995. Should the IAAF limit the event to the best 16 or 24 per event, subject to three athletes per country?

If it did the event could be held over half the time and you wouldn’t need 12 heats of the 100m and seven 800m heats as in Athens or morning sessions and it would be a tighter, more attractive package for spectators and television viewers.

Hopefully each event would have the same amount of entrants and tighter qualification could lead to more competitive higher-quality Diamond League events as athletes sought to qualify. Alternatively, the big meetings could even hold some of the qualifying rounds.

» This feature was first published in the March 23 edition of AW magazine, which is available to buy and read digitally here and includes further Athens 1997 stats plus a list of champions. Other IAAF World Championships history features can be found here

» Our IAAF World Championships history features were published in AW magazine from February 16 to May 25, 2017. Back issues can be ordered here