For much of the 20th century, women had few opportunities to run events longer than 400 meters, much less attempt a 10,000-meter run. The IAAF didn’t recognize a women’s 10,000-meter world record until 1981 and the event didn’t reach the Olympic Games until 1988. A pair of Germans posted the earliest known women’s 10,000-meter times, as Hannelore Middecke reportedly ran the distance in 39:10.0 in 1966, while Gertrude Schmidt is supposed to have run 39:25.0 sometime in the same year.
Unofficial World Records
Ireland’s Ann O’Brien set the first unofficial women’s 10,000-meter mark on March 26, 1967, finishing in 38:06.4. Italy’s Paola Pigni Cacchi, who set recognized records in the mile and the 1500, and unofficial world marks at three other distances, shattered O’Brien’s record in 1970, winning a Milan race in 35:30.5. American Kathy Gibbons ran 34:51.0 in 1971, but in a mixed race with both men and women. Another American, Julie Brown – best known as the 1975 World Cross Country champion – ran 35:00.4 in a conventional women’s race in 1975. Later that year, German marathon champion Christa Vahlensieck lowered the unofficial 10,000-meter record to 34:01.4.
Denmark’s Loa Olafsson, a protégé of legendary running coach Arthur Lydiard, set unofficial distance records in several events and dropped the women’s 10,000-meter standard to 33:34.2 in March of 1977. In June, however, American Peg Neppel ran 33:15.1 to win the AAU nationals and set a new mark. The following year, Natalia Marasescu Betini of Romania lowered the standard below 33 minutes, to 32:43.2. Three months later, in April 1978, Olafsson ran 31:45.40 in a mixed race in Denmark. Her time was faster than the first world mark eventually recognized by the IAAF, and her IAAF profile lists the mixed-race time as her personal best. Nevertheless, Olafsson’s name doesn’t appear in the official record books. In August of 1981, Russia’s Olga Bondarenko – then running as Olga Krentser – set the last widely-recognized yet still unofficial women’s 10,000-meter record of 32:30.80, in Moscow.
Opening the Record Books
In October 1981, Russia’s Yelena Sipatova became the first female 10,000-meter world record-holder recognized by the IAAF, winning the Soviet Union’s initial women’s 10,000-meter national championship in 32:17.20.
The following year, American Mary Decker-Slaney set world records in six events, from the mile to 10,000 meters. She ran her first-ever 10,000-meter track race, held near her Oregon home in July, on a last-minute whim and finished with a world-record time of 31:35.3. But the record continued to fall as two Russians lowered the mark in 1983. First, Lyudmila Baranova ran 31:35.01 in May, then Raisa Sadreydinova finished in 31:27.58 at the national championships September. In 1984,
Bondarenko, the last unofficial record-holder, found her way into the official record books in 1984. The 93-pound runner – who’d later win the initial women’s Olympic 10,000 meters – ran 31:13.78 in Kiev to clip more than 13 seconds from the old mark.
Norway’s Ingrid Kristiansen became the first woman to run under 31 minutes, at the 1985 Bislett Games in Oslo. Overcoming a relatively slow start, Kristiansen finished strong to win in 30:59.42. She lowered the mark by more than 45 seconds, to 30:13.74, at the Bislett Games in 1986.
Records Fall at Chinese Championships
Kristiansen’s second record stood for seven years, until the Chinese assault on the record books in 1993, as runners trained by Ma Junren set four world records during the national championships. Among the marks was Wang Junxia’s record-shattering 29:31.78 in the 10,000, which still stands as of 2014. She also broke the 3000-meter record during the championships. The quantity of records broken within a week raised many doubts, which were heightened in 2000 when several of Ma’s runners failed drug tests prior to the Sydney Olympics. Wang, who retired after competing in the 1996 Olympics, never failed a test herself and her 10,000-meter performance remains in the official record books.