Syracuse Online

Top Female Distance Runners

Fabulous Five

Published July 21, 2003 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

The task of identifying the best female distance runners of the past century immediately failed the test of time. The traditional distance events of the marathon, 10,000 meters and 5,000 meters made their Olympic debuts in women.s competition in 1984, 1988 and 1996 respectively, compared to 1896, 1912 and 1912 for men.

A search for female runners who reigned atop the world by winning Olympic gold and setting a world record, not necessarily the same day, yielded a short list of four. In addition, only one woman has ever won two Olympic gold medals in distance running. These five women make up our precarious list of top female distance runners of the twentieth century.

Joan Benoit (born 1957 in Maine, USA) overcame injuries and surgeries to both Achilles tendons to set a world record of 2:22:42 at the 1983 Boston Marathon. Knee surgery 17 days before the 1984 Olympic trials did not slow her down. She qualified for the Olympics, and ran alone in the lead to win the women.s first Olympic marathon in Los Angeles, beating favorite Grete Waitz.

Olga Bondarenko (born 1960 in Sibiria) set 10,000-meter world records of 32:30.80 in 1981 and 31:13.78 in 1984. Bondarenko won the gold medal in the first women.s Olympic 10,000 meters in Seoul in 1988. Despite her slight built of 5ft6in and 90 lbs, Bondarenko.s finishing kick characterized her many victories on the track.

Wang Junxia (born 1973 in China) became the first woman to break 30 minutes in the 10,000 meters, setting a world record of 29:31.78 in 1993. British statistician Dr Howard Grubb considered her record .the greatest run of all time.. Junxia went on to win the gold medal in the first Olympic 5,000 meters in Atlanta in 1996.

Naoko Takahashi (born 1972 in Japan) won the gold medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. A year later, Takahashi became the first woman to run a marathon under 2 hours 20 minutes, winning the 2001 Berlin Marathon in 2:19:46. Her record fell a week later when Catherine Ndereba of Kenya won Chicago in 2:18.47.

Derartu Tulu (born 1972 in Ethiopia) remains the only woman to win two Olympic gold medals in distance running. Tulu won the 10,000 meters at both the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. An excellent tactical runner, her personal record in 10,000 meters is 45 seconds slower than the world record.

Women's distance running has come a long way since the training runs of Kathryn Switzer and Arnie Briggs through the drumlins of Syracuse. With rising stars like Paula Radcliffe, the list Olympic champions who hold world records promises to grow deeper in Athens.

© 2003 The Post-Standard.

Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. Dr.J. created, webcasting live Every Lap of Every Race. He receives email at