Sonia O’Sullivan: The world record that has stood for 41 years may soon be broken

We appear to be nearing the time when a woman will run the 800m faster than Jarmila Kratochvílová somehow did in 1983

This could be seen as a sort of golden period for the women’s 800m. It’s not just one of the most competitive events on the track or field right now, but also one of the most exciting, several of the top women all capable of beating the other.

For many women the 800m benchmark is still the two-minute barrier. This is a feat only ever achieved by two female Irish athletes: Ciara Mageean four years ago, followed by Louise Shanahan two years later.

That’s also the world or Olympic standard, with the qualifying mark for Paris this summer set at 1:59.30, a time only the very best 800m women can think of attaining.

Then you look at the women’s world 800m record of 1:53.28 set by Jarmila Kratochvílová, from the former eastern bloc state of Czechoslovakia, now split into Czech Republic and Slovakia. Believe it or not, the record turns 41 years old this summer. It is the longest-standing outdoor record in the books and there is little hope, it would appear, of it being broken any time soon.


So we do need to talk about Kratochvílová. Before she ran her unmatched time, at the Olympiapark meeting in Munich in July 1983, she was a 200m/400m specialist, and reportedly only moved up on the evening of the race to test her strength. She ended up winning by 10 seconds, a distance previously inconceivable in the women’s 800m.

She sliced just 0.15 off the previous world record of 1:53.43, set by Nadezhda Olizarenko, from the old USSR, when winning the 1980 Olympics in front of her home crowd in Moscow. Still, no one then could have imagined Kratochvílová's would still be standing in 2024.

More incredible, perhaps, is the fact only two athletes have ever got within one second of that record: Pamela Jelimo from Kenya, who ran 1:54.01 in 2008; and Caster Semenya from South Africa, who ran 1:54.25 in 2018.

The thing with 800m running is it’s a meeting spot of sorts for runners coming from a short-sprint and middle-distance background, so there are different ways to train for the event and win races.

Kratochvílová was running well before the era of super spikes, although her breakthrough did coincide with the era of state-organised doping in East Germany. After her 800m world record, Kratochvílová was pictured on the front cover of Athletics Weekly in August 1983, in a preview to the 1983 World Athletics Championships in Helsinki, and it’s evident she came from the strength background, rather than aerobic, endurance background.

Her best for 400m, 47.99, was also a world record, set when winning the 1983 World Championships 400m/800m double, and remains the second fastest 400m time ever. Now aged 73, Kratochvílová always denied any use of performance-enhancing drugs, saying in a 2017 interview that was “complete nonsense”. She put her performances down to extreme weight training.

“When you work as hard as I did, you have to sacrifice some of your looks,” she said. “The women of the West don’t work as hard as I did.”

That current crop of women’s 800m athletes include world champion Mary Moraa from Kenya and Britain’s Keely Hodgkinson, who have been sharpening up their speed in recent weeks over 400m, looking for that edge that may allow them to feel more comfortable passing through the first lap at a world record pace.

They will both line up at the Prefontaine Classic this Saturday in Eugene, Oregon. Olympic champion Athing Mu from USA has withdrawn because of injury, but the field also includes world indoor champion Tsige Duguma from Ethiopia. Mu seems to be the athlete who has a bit of everything of the current female 800m runners, with a 400m best of 49.61 from 2020, and 1,500m best of 4:03 from 2023, when she finished second at the US Championships.

What makes it even more interesting is the athletes in the 800m rarely hold back. They don’t seem to be afraid to lose. It will take a first lap of 55 for any chance to get close to the world record, and when there is no fear of setting the race up for someone else to capitalise, it’s a battle of the fearless, and the one who slows down the least wins.

In mathematical terms, Kratochvílová's record appears to be within reach, but even with all the current progression in technology and tracks, pacing lights and fuelling, are they really getting any closer and what will it take to make that final breakthrough?

Athlete performances across various distances are assigned a performance score in the world rankings tables to enable comparisons. The metrics across various events suggest the 800m is next in line to be broken.

Could this finally be the year when competitiveness and fearlessness push these women past the strength of 41 years ago, when Kratochvílová stepped up from the 200m and 400m to surprisingly set the still standing world 800m record? One can only hope and wonder.

Watch a 1995 documentary on Kratochvílová here: