For much of the 20th century, the 5000-meter run was considered too long for women. The event didn't even appear in the Olympics until 1996. Earlier than that, however, the IAAF took notice of women's distance running by recognizing a 5000-meter world record in 1981. Great Britain's Paula Fudge, the 1978 Commonwealth Games 3000-meter champion, set the initial mark by posting a time of 15:14.51 in Knarvik, Norway. It didn’t take long for that time to drop, as the record fell twice the next year. First, New Zealand's Ann Audain – another Commonwealth Games 3000-meter winner – ran 15:13.22 in her first-ever 5000-meter race. Later in 1982, American Mary Decker-Slaney, a soon-to-be double World champion, lowered the standard to 15:08.26. In 1984, Norway's Ingrid Kristiansen – the 1987 World champion at 10,000 meters – broke the 15-minute barrier by running 14:58.89 in Oslo.
Zola Budd Breaks the Record Twice, is Recognized Once
South African-born Zola Budd is best known for running barefoot and for her collision with Decker-Slaney in the 1984 Olympic 3000-meter final. But Budd was also a successful distance runner who topped the 5000-meter record twice, even though she was only credited once. In 1984, before Kristiansen set her mark, Budd ran faster than Decker-Slaney’s existing record, finishing in 15:01.83 at age 17. Because she was a South African citizen at the time, and the race was in South Africa, the IAAF did not ratify the performance because of sanctions on the country due to its apartheid practices. Budd became a British citizen in 1985 and promptly broke Kristiansen’s record by more than 10 seconds in a race in her adopted country. Budd finished the London race in 14:48.07, with Kristiansen taking second, giving her a close-up look as her record was beaten.
Kristiansen regained the record in 1986, a year in which she also set the 10,000-meter world record and won the Boston Marathon. Kristiansen took the 5000-meter mark back by winning a Stockholm race in 14:37.33. Her second mark lasted nine years, until Portugal’s Fernanda Ribeiro – the 1996 Olympic gold medalist in the 10,000 – edged the record down to 14:36.45. Two different Chinese women broke the mark within two days of each other in 1997, in Shanghai. Dong Yanmei lowered the record to 14:31.27 on Oct. 21, then Jiang Bo took it down to 14:28.09 on Oct. 23. In 2004, Elvan Abeylegesse became the first Turkish athlete to set a world track and field record, winning Norway’s Bislett Games 5000-meter title in 14:24.68.
Ethiopians Grab the 5000-Meter Honors
Two years after Abeylegesse set her record, Ethiopia’s Meseret Defar nudged the mark down to 14:24.53 in New York. In 2007 the two-time Olympic 5000-meter gold medalist chipped almost eight seconds off the record, running a time of 14:16.63 at the Bislett Games in Oslo. Defar also went on to break world marks at 2 miles outdoors and 3000 meters indoors. Her second 5000-meter record survived for a year, until fellow Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba used the Bislett Games as her entrance to the record books. Dibaba employed several pacemakers, including her older sister, Ejegayehu, and finished in 14:11.15.