The 1912 Olympic 5000-meter event produced an exciting final in which Finland's Hannes Kolehmainen rallied to out-kick Jean Bouin of France on the final straight. Kolehmainen's victory produced the first men's 5000-meter world record recognized by the IAAF. His time of 14:36.6 was more than a minute faster than Kolehmainen's winning performance in his semifinal heat.
That initial 5000-meter mark lasted 10 years until another Finn, the legendary Paavo Nurmi, ran 14:35.4 in 1922. Nurmi improved his record to 14:28.2 in 1928. Two more Finnish runners succeeded Nurmi, as Lauri Lehtinen lowered the mark to 14:17.0 in 1932 and Taisto Maki finished in 14:08.8 in 1939, one of five world records Maki set or improved in that year.
Non-Finns Take Charge
In 1942, Sweden's Gunder Hagg ended Finland's 30-year reign by beating the 14-minute barrier to lower the mark to 13:58.2. Twelve years later, Czechoslovakia's multitalented Emil Zatopek took the record away from Scandinavia and began an amazing five-month assault on the 5000-meter mark by winning a race in 13:57.2, on May 30 in Paris. Zatopek only enjoyed the mark for three months before Russia's Vladimir Kuts lowered it to 13:56.6 at the European Championships. About six weeks later, Great Britain's Chris Chataway chipped five seconds off the mark – with Kuts a close second in the race – but Kuts took the record back just 10 days later with a time of 13:51.2.
The record fell three times in 1955 as Sandor Iharos of Hungary and Kuts went back and forth. Iharos broke the record on Sept. 10 (13:50.8), Kuts regained it eight days later (13:46.8) and then Iharos got it back on Sept. 23 (13:40.6). Iharos also set records at 1500 meters, 3000 meters and 2 miles in 1955. The next two years were relatively quiet on the 5000-meter front, with only one world record performance in each year. Gordon Pirie of Great Britain ran 13:36.8 in 1956 – taking 25 seconds off his previous personal best – then the ever-improving Kuts set his fourth world mark in 1957, with a time of 13:35.0.
Clarke Times Four
Kuts' final record survived for about eight years, until Australian distance ace Ron Clarke – who broke 19 records at various distances in the 1960s – set his first 5000-meter world mark in 1965, running 13:34.8. Clarke improved the mark twice in 1965, topping out at 13:25.8, but the record traveled to Africa for the first time in November of that year, when Kenya's Kip Keino posted a time of 13:24.2 in Auckland, New Zealand, where Clarke had set his set 5000-meter mark earlier that year.
Clarke regained the record in 1966 when he ran 13:16.6 and enjoyed his fourth and final mark for six years. The record then returned to Finland for the first time since 1942 when Lasse Viren finished in 13:16.4 on Sept. 14, 1972, less than a week after he won the Olympic gold medal. This time, however, Finland's ownership of the record was numbered in days, rather than decades, as Belgium's Emiel Puttemans lowered the mark to 13:13.0 on Sept. 20, in Brussels. Puttemans also broke Clarke’s 2-mile record en route to finishing the 5000 meters, with a time of 12:47.6.
New Zealand's Dick Quax just edged into the record books in 1977, finishing in 13:12.9. Henry Rono then brought the mark back to Kenya with record-setting performances in 1978 and 1981. He broke world marks in four different events within 81 days in 1978, then improved his 5000-meter record to 13:06.20 three years later. In 1982, Great Britain's David Moorcroft became the last non-African record-holder (as of 2014) by dropping the mark to 13:00.41 at the Bislett Games in Oslo. Norway was also the site of the next world-record performance as Said Aouita of Morocco – who set world records at four different distances in the 1980s – took one-hundredth of a second off the record. Aouita then shattered the 13-minute barrier in 1987, winning a race in Rome in 12:58.39.
Since 1994, the 5000-meter world record has bounced back and forth between Kenyans and Ethiopians. The two-nation domination began when Haile Gebrselassie set his first 5000-meter mark in 1994, running 12:56.96. Moses Kiptanui of Kenya lowered the standard to 12:55.30 in June of 1995, but Gebrselassie took the record back in August, with a time of 12:44.39. The Ethiopian lowered his mark to 12:41.86 on Aug. 13, 1997, but Kenya's Daniel Komen posted a time of 12:39.74 on Aug. 22. The tenacious Gebrselassie had one more 5000-meter record-breaker in him as he lowered the mark to 12:39.36 in 1998. As of 2014 Gebrselassie had broken 27 world records at distances ranging from 2 miles to the marathon.
In 2004, fellow Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele posted the 35th IAAF-recognized world record at 5000 meters, posting a time of 12:37.35 in Hengelo, Netherlands. Bekele used a pacemaker for the first half of the race but was still a bit behind the record pace when he unleashed a final lap of 57.85 seconds to set the new standard.
Women's 5000-Meter World Record Progression (coming soon)