The 10,000-meter track event – not to be confused with the 10K road race – has a distinguished history even though it’s not run as often as the 5000 meters. The men’s 10,000 was added to the Olympics in 1912, and some of the greatest names in distance-running history have established world records in the event. The man recognized by the IAAF as the initial 10,000-meter world record-holder is Jean Bouin of France, even though his mark of 30:58.8, set in 1911, pre-dates the IAAF’s foundation the following year.
As with the 5000 meters, Finland was strong in the 10,000 in the early 20th century, as Finnish runners gained five of the first six Olympic gold medals in the event. Beginning in 1921, when the legendary Paavo Nurmi ran 30:40.2 to set a new world mark, Finnish runners held the record for 28 years. Ville Ritola lower the mark twice in 1924, dropping it to 30:35.4 in May, then winning the Olympic final in 30:23.2 in July, one of four gold medals he earned during the Paris Olympics. However, Nurmi snatched the record back in August, shattering the mark with a time of 30:06.2. In his career, Nurmi broke 20 individual world records at distances ranging from 1500 to 20,000 meters.
Nurmi’s second 10,000-meter record survived for 13 years until another Finn, Ilmari Salminen, improved the standard to 30:05.6 in 1937. Taisto Maki set a new mark in 1938 and again in 1939, breaking the 30-minute barrier on the second occasion with a time of 29:52.6, one of five world marks he set that year. In 1944, Viljo Heino, the last member of Finland’s 10,000-meter dynasty, took almost 17 seconds off the record, dropping it to 29:35.4.
In 1949, Heino and Czechoslovakia’s Emil Zatopek traded the record back and forth. Zatopek took the 10,000-meter record away from the Finns for the first time since 1921 by posting a time of 29:28.2 in June. Heino regained the mark briefly in September, taking one second off of Zatopek’s time, but the Czech distance ace lowered the standard to 29:21.2 in October. Zatopek, who went on to break world records in five different events, lowered his 10,000-meter mark three more times. His final record in the event broke the 29-minute mark, as he won a race in Belgium in 28:54.2 in 1954.
The record was broken twice in 1956, as Sandor Iharos of Hungary trimmed almost 10 seconds off the mark in July – having previously set world marks at four other distances – then Vladimir Kuts of the Soviet Union dropped the record to 28:30.4 in September. The record remained in Soviet hands as Pyotr Bolotnikov broke it in 1960 and then lowered it in 1962, to 28:18.2.
Australia’s Ron Clarke took the record away from Russia in 1963, running 28:15.6 in a Melbourne race. In 1965 – a year in which he broke 12 records at various distances – Clarke lowered the 10,000-meter standard twice. On the second occasion, Clarke finished in 27:39.4, shattering the 28-minute mark and taking a remarkable 34.6 seconds from his former record. Lasse Viren briefly returned the mark to Finland in 1972, winning the Olympic gold medal in a world-record time of 27:38.35. David Bedford of Great Britain lowered the record to 27:30.8 the following year and held the mark for four years.
Samson Kimobwa of Kenya became the first African runner to own the 10,000-meter world record when he won a Helsinki race in 27:30.5 in 1977. He was succeeded by fellow Kenyan Henry Rono, who ran 27:22.4 the following year, during a three-month span in which he broke four different world marks. The record then left Africa for almost 10 years, after Portugal’s Fernando Mamede lowered the mark to 27:13.81 in 1984. In 1989, Mexico’s Arturo Barrios trimmed the standard to 27:08.23 in Berlin.
Richard Chelimo of Kenya ran 27:07.91 in 1993 to open a five-year assault on the record, which fell eight times during that span. Indeed, Chelimo’s record, set on July 5 in Stockholm, only survived for five days before fellow Kenyan Yobes Ondieki lowered it below the 27-minute mark, to 26:58.38, at the Bislett Games in Norway. Another Kenyan, William Sigei, ran 26:52.23 at the 1994 Bislett Games.
Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie made world-record performances almost an annual event for much of his career, beginning with the 5000-meter world mark in 1994. He set his first 10,000-meter world record in 1995, in Hengelo, Netherlands. Morocco’s Salah Hissou lowered the mark to 26:38.08 the following year, before Gebrselassie took it back by running 26:31.32 in the always-fast Bislett Games in 1997, running by himself and waving to the crowd down the home stretch. The record only stood for 18 days, however, until Kenya’s Paul Tergat lowered the standard to 26:27.85 in Brussels.
Gebrselassie took five seconds off the record the next year, in Hengelo, finishing in 26:22.75, with splits clocked at 13:11 apiece. His final 10,000-meter record stood for six years until another Ethiopian, Kenenisa Bekele, ran 26:20.31 in Ostrava, Czech Republic in 2004. Bekele lowered the mark to 26:17.53 in Brussels in 2005, running smooth splits of 13:09/13:08 with the help of pacemakers, including his brother, Tariku. Bekele capped his performance by running the final lap in 57 seconds.