The 400-meter hurdles is a relatively young event in the history of women’s track and field. While the first known men’s race, at a distance of 440 yards (402.3 meters) was held in 1860, it took more than 100 years before the first recorded women’s races in 1971. The 400-meter hurdles finally entered Olympic competition in Los Angeles, in 1984.
In the early 1970s, the best women’s times in the event were above 60 seconds. American Wendy Koenig posted the first recorded sub-60 time, 59.08 seconds, in 1973. By the end of 1973, the unofficial world best had dropped to 56.7, run by Poland’s Danuta Piecyk in Warsaw.
The First World Record
The IAAF first recognized a world mark in the women’s 400-meter hurdles in 1974. Since that time, East Europeans have dominated the event, setting all but two of the recognized world records. Poland’s Krystyna Kacperczyk established the first recognized world mark by winning a race in Augsburg in 56.51 seconds. Surprisingly for a new event, Kacperczyk’s record stood for almost three full years, until Tatyana Storozheva of the Soviet Union dipped below 56 seconds, finishing in 55.74 in June of 1977. She only held the record for six weeks before East Germany’s Karin Rossley won a Helsinki race in 55.63 in August.
Kacperczyk took the record back the following year, posting a time of 55.44 in Berlin, but the ink was barely dry in the record books before Tatyana Zelenzova of the Soviet Union broke the mark the next day, with a time of 55.31. Zelenzova lowered the standard to 54.89 two weeks later, in Prague.
The record remained in the Soviet Union in 1979 as Marina Makeyeva improved the mark to 54.78 in Moscow. Rossley then regained the record in 1980, posting a time of 54.28 in Jena. Lithuanian Anna Ambraziene, running for the Soviet Union, lowered the mark to 54.02 in a 1983 meet in Moscow. Another Soviet competitor, Margarita Ponomaryova, broke the 54-second barrier to set a new standard of 53.58 seconds in Kiev in 1984. The following year, future World champion Sabine Busch of East Germany edged into the record books with a time of 53.55 seconds, in a Berlin race.
World Championship Record-Breakers
Makeyeva, now known by her married name of Marina Stepanova, had left the sport to give birth but returned to lower the world mark twice in 1986. She won a Stuttgart race in 53.32 seconds in August, then dipped below 53 seconds, improving the record to 52.94 in September. The latter record stood for seven years, until the 1993 World Championships, held in Stuttgart. In a star-studded Championships final, Sally Gunnell of Great Britain became the first non-Eastern European to own the 400-meter hurdles record, winning the gold medal in 52.74 seconds. Ponomaryova finished third in the race while future record-holder Kim Batten was fourth.
Batten’s time came in the 1995 World Championship final, in Gothenburg, as Batten won in a world-record time of 52.61. She owned the mark for eight years, until Russia’s Yuliya Pechonkina lowered the record to 52.34 seconds in 2003, during a meet in Tula. A problem with sinusitis eventually forced Pechonkina, the 2005 World champion, to retire at age 31.