Although the 1500-meter race has been run in every modern Olympic Games, dating back to 1896, it was originally less popular than the mile and didn’t always attract the best middle distance runners. As a result, early Olympic times were slow – Edwin Flack won the race in 4:33.2 in 1896, and the winning time didn’t dip below four minutes until 1912, the same year the IAAF began ratifying world records. American Abel Kiviat broke the unofficial world mark three times between May 26 and June 8 of 1912, with the final performance – 3:55.8 – being accepted as the IAAF’s first official world record in the 1500.
Kiviat’s mark survived a bit longer than five years, until Sweden’s John Zander posted a time of 3:54.7 in 1917. Zander’s record was even more durable, remaining on the books almost seven years, until Finland’s Paavo Nurmi clipped two seconds off the mark, finishing in 3:52.6 in 1924. Germany’s Otto Peltzer lowered the record to 3:51.0 in 1926. In 1930 France’s Jules Ladoumegue made a successful world record attempt with the help of three pacesetters as he broke the 3:50 barrier to win in 3:49.2. One of those pacesetters, Italy’s Luigi Beccali, matched the record in 1930, then beat the mark eight days later, posting a time of 3:49.0. Two Americans topped Beccali’s record during the 1934 U.S. Championships. Glenn Cunningham finished in 3:48.9 but had to settle for second behind Bill Bonthron’s record time of 3:48.8. New Zealand’s Jack Lovelock became the first runner to set a 1500-meter world record during the Olympics, winning the 1936 final in 3:47.8. For the second time in two years, the unfortunate Cunningham beat the previous world mark while finishing second in a major race, this time in 3:48.4.
From 1941 through 1947, Swedish runners broke or tied the 1500-meter world record five times. Gunder Hagg broke the mark three times, the last being a 3:43.0 performance in 1944. Arne Andersson broke the record once, in 1943, and Lennart Strand tied Hagg’s final mark in 1947. Germany’s Werner Lueg also matched the record, in 1952. In 1954, two runners beat the 1500-meter mark with times posted on the way to completing a mile, which is about 109 meters longer than the 1500. American Wes Santee ran 3:42.8 on June 4, while Australia’s John Landy posted a time of 3:41.8 just 17 days later. No other runner has ever been credited with a 1500-meter record during a longer race.
Sandor Iharos posted a record time of 3:40.8 in July of 1955, then fellow Hungarian Laszlo Tabori plus Denmark’s Gunnar Nielsen both matched the time in September. The record was beaten or tied five more times in 1956-58, including the “Night of Three Olavis” in 1957, when Finland’s Olavi Salsola and Olavi Salonen were both credited with times of 3:40.2 while third-place Olavi Vuorisalo finished in 3:40.3. Australia’s Herb Elliott set the final mark of the 2-year period, 3:36.0, the following year. Elliott then lowered the record to 3:35.6 in the 1960 Olympic final.
American and British Runners Take Their Turns
Elliott’s mark stood for almost seven years until 20-year-old American Jim Ryun shattered the record by 2.5 seconds, running a 53.3-second final lap to win in 3:33.1 in 1967. Almost seven years later Filbert Bayi of Tanzania took the record down to 3:32.2 during the Commonwealth Games final, in which New Zealand’s John Walker placed second in 3:32.5.
Sebastian Coe became the first runner in history to hold the 800-meter, mile and 1500-meter records simultaneously in 1979, when he set a 1500-meter mark of 3:32.1. Coe’s British rival, Steve Ovett, then broke the mark twice in 1980, topping out at 3:31.4, which was changed to 3:31.36 in 1981, when the IAAF began mandating electronic times for world record purposes.
Sydney Maree, a native South African then running for the United States, became the last American to hold the 1500-meter record when he posted a time of 3:31.24 in August of 1983. But the ink in the record books was barely dry when Ovett snatched the record back just a week later, finishing in 3:30.77 in Rieti. Steve Cram kept the record in Great Britain when he beat the 3:30 mark, finishing in 3:29.67 in July of 1985. Said Aouita of Morocco finished second to Cram in 3:29.71, then edged into the books five weeks later with a time of 3:29.46.
North Africa Controls the 1500
Algeria’s Noureddine Morcelli set two records in the 1990s, running 3:28.86 in 1992 and 3:27.37 in 1995. Three years later, Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj put the record in his sights during a race in Rome. Using two pacemakers – including Noah Ngeny, who’d win the 1500-meter Olympic gold in 2000 – El Guerrouj literally ran away with the race and the record, finishing in 3:26.00. As of 2014 the mark is easily the longest-standing 1500-meter record in recorded history.