The women’s 1500-meter event dates back more than 100 years, but for much of that time women participated only sporadically in races longer than 200 meters. Indeed, the 1500-meter race wasn’t added to the Olympics until 1972. The IAAF didn’t recognize a women’s 1500-meter world record until 1967, but some earlier performances give an indication of how rapidly women’s middle distance runners improved during the 60 previous years.
In one of the first recorded women’s 1500-meter races, held in Finland in 1908, Finland’s Siina Simola won with a time of 5:45. In 1927, Russia’s Anna Mushkina posted a time of 5:18.2 in a Moscow race. Russia’s Yevdokiya Vasilyeva ran the first recorded sub-5:00 time by a woman, winning a Moscow race in 4:47.2 in 1936. Vasilyeva eventually lowered her 1500-meter time to 4:38.0 in 1944. Another Soviet Union runner, Olga Ovsyannikova, dropped the unofficial women’s mark to 4:37.8 in 1946.
Russia’s Nina Pietnyova, the 1954 European champion at 800 meters, recorded a 1500-meter time of 4:37.0 in 1952. Great Britain’s Phyllis Perkins took the women’s mark away from Russia in 1956, winning a race in 4:35.4. In a sign of how women runners were regarded at the time, a Sports Illustrated article described Perkins as a typist who “deserted her keyboard to take a crack at 1,500 meters.”
Another British runner, Diane Leather, broke the 5-minute mile barrier in 1954, then set the unofficial 1500-meter women’s record twice in 1957, topping out at 4:29.7 on her way to completing a mile race. Likewise, New Zealand’s Marise Chamberlain shattered Leather’s time during a mile event, completing 1500 meters in 4:19.0 in 1962.
The IAAF Era
Great Britain’s Anne Rosemary Smith already owned the women’s world mile record before running another historical mile race in London, in June of 1967. Smith ran the 1500 in 4:17.3, on her way to a 4:37.0 mile. The times became the first world records officially accepted by the IAAF in each category. The 1500-meter mark didn’t last long, however, as Maria Gommers of the Netherlands lowered it to 4:15.6 in October of that year.
The 1500-meter record fell twice in 1969. First, Paola Pigni of Italy dropped the mark to 4:12.4 in July, then Czechoslovakia’s Jaroslava Jehlickova posted a time of 4:10.7 in September. East Germany’s Karin Burneleit – later known as Karin Krebs – won the 1971 European Championships with a record time of 4:09.6.
Russia’s Ludmila Bragina began an unprecedented assault on the 1500-meter record in July of 1972, lowering the mark to 4:06.9 in Moscow. She then topped the mark in all three races of the 1972 Munich Olympics, where she won the gold medal in 4:01.38, which went into the world record books as 4:01.4.
Two-time Olympic champion Tatyana Kazankina broke the 1500-meter record three times during two Olympic years, 1976 and 1980. Although she earned gold medals on both occasions, she didn’t set her marks during the Olympics. She entered the record books in June 1976, before the Montreal Games, with a time of 3:56.0. She lowered the mark to 3:55.0 prior to the Moscow Olympics of 1980, then posted a time of 3:52.47 in the week after the Games ended. The latter performance became the first electronically-timed mark, recorded in hundredths of seconds, accepted by the IAAF.
Kazankina’s final record stood for 13 years, until Qu Yunxia of China lowered it to 3:50.46 in 1993, during the National Games in Beijing. Second-place runner Wang Junxia also beat the old mark during the race, finishing in 3:51.92.