By Owen Corbett
August 22, 2023
Faith Kipyegon is finally having the season she dreamed about.
Despite her six global medals, she always made her intentions known about becoming the fastest woman in history over 1500m, an accomplishment that would cement her GOAT status. On June 2nd, in Florence, she did just that. She left every one of her competitors behind in the first half of the race, then when her pacers stepped off and it became a race against the wavelights, she left them behind too.
After taking multiple cracks at the eight-year-old 3:50.07 mark over the past few seasons, she demolished it by almost a full second, and every woman that toed the start line for the race rejoiced around her as they came around to finish. At this point Kipyegon could have coasted through the rest of the season until this week’s World Championships, but just seven days later she was lining up against another world record holder, Letesenbet Gidey, to battle it out over 5,000 meters in Paris.
It was never billed as another world record attempt, and why would it be? It was Kipyegon’s first race at the distance in eight years. But just 14 minutes and 5.2 seconds later, she sat on the track in shock. Not only did she beat Gidey, but she took down the Ethiopian star’s world record in the process. In post-race interviews Kipyegon was speechless. She had spent so much emotion the previous week explaining what her first record run of the year had meant to her, she didn’t know how to react to her second.
The next time we saw Kipyegon on the track against an international field it was in Monaco, and everyone in the stadium knew that the mile world record of 4:12.33 had mere minutes of life left. What they didn’t know was that Kipyegon would take close to five seconds off the record on the exact same track where it was set.
And with this most recent feat, the Kenyan mother took down the three most prestigious middle distance records in the world within a span of just 50 days. This accomplishment reminded many of – and allowed others to discover – the 1978 season, which saw Henry Rono break four different world records in the span of 81 days. And while the window for Kipyegon to match Rono’s feat will have closed by the time she leaves Budapest, it begs the question, is Faith Kipyegon on her way to the best season in track and field history?
Now that would be a bold claim! And it’s not one we are necessarily trying to answer in this article. Rather, we’ll provide some candidates and leave it up to you to decide. Compiled below is a list of 25 of the best record breaking seasons dating back to Rono’s 1978, divvied up into some handy categories. But first, it is inevitable that there will be disagreements and snubs, so a couple guidelines to keep things civil.
- In order to make the list you have to have set at least one world record during the season – 22 of the 25 athletes set records in multiple events during their banner season. This means that even the near perfect seasons of greats like Gail Devers, who in 1993 won world championship gold medals in the 100m, 100m hurdles, and the indoor 60m, and was among the ten fastest women in the history of each event – exactly the versatility that would land her on this list – fail to make the cut without a world record.
- One of the most impressive aspects of Kipyegon’s season so far is her versatility in races from 1500m on the track to 10km on the grass. Priority on the list was given to athletes who excelled across a range of events over those who dominated just one event. As a result, the list is dominated by competitors on the track as opposed to field athletes who tend to specialize in only one event. Apologies to dominant seasons like that of 2021 Ryan Crouser, who went undefeated while breaking indoor and outdoor shot put records that were each 30+ years old, put up five of the top-eight throws of all time, and surpassed the previous Olympic Record with all six throws en route to gold in Tokyo.
- Another emphasis is that we are assessing the full season. Bad races are not ignored. The number of races is also important, the more the better. This pretty much eliminates record breaking seasons of Eliud Kipchoge or Haile Gebrselassie during the marathon portions of their career. A more difficult omission may have been Joshua Cheptegei’s 2020 season where he broke 3 world records, but fewer racing opportunities due to COVID left him with only 4 races on the year – along with less strict drug testing – which brings us to…
- I am not WADA. Some of the athletes on this list have been the subject of doping suspicion for decades (I mean, who hasn't been accused via LetsRun thread), and we will note that. But short of their records being removed, they are still up for consideration on the list as a reflection of this sport and its history. Athletes that were proven as drug cheats and had their records stripped on the other hand are obviously not included, a la Ben Johnson’s 1987 season where he set the world record in both the 100m dash and indoor 60m dash and won gold in each event at their respective World Championships before admitting to steroid use a year later.
- And finally, as mentioned above this is not a comprehensive list of the history of track and field, it dates back only to Rono’s 1978 feat (Paavo Nurmi fans, I understand if you choose to stop reading here). Part of the reason is that the further we look back, the less resources there are about knowing every single race an athlete ran in a specific season. Yes, it was an amazing feat when Babe Didrikson set world records in the 80m hurdles and high jump while also winning gold in the javelin at the 1932 Olympics, but that was more than four decades before we could even add a second decimal point to records with electronic timing. The other part of it is about yours truly: it would be different if I could recall all the stellar seasons I witnessed in the good old days of track and field; before wave lights, and super shoes, and zero gravity treadmills. But the fact of the matter is over 75% of the seasons on this list already took place before I was born. I guess you could blame my parents for that one.
Let’s start by breaking down what Kipyegon has accomplished so far:
2023 Faith Kipyegon | World Records: 3
– So far this year Kipyegon is undefeated over eight races and four different distances this year. We all know she became the first woman to break 3:50 in the 1500m, and took the largest chunk off the mile world record since 1977, but did you know she started the season going back to her roots with a 10k cross country race in Eldoret?
– One of the special things about Kipyegon’s season is that she is lifting up her events as a whole, prior to her record setting run in Monaco, no woman in history had run a sub-4:16 mile and lost the race, a mark that four finishers behind Kipyegon bested as she brought more than half the field – seven of thirteen finishers – to national records. Even against this elite competition, Kipyegon still holds chasmic world leads of nearly five seconds in the 1500m and almost seven seconds in the mile.
– With championship season now upon her, Kipyegon is the overwhelming gold medal favorite in tonight’s 1500m World Championship final, and will be trying out the 5000m for the first time on the global stage, where any color of medal looks to be within reach. If all goes well, Kipyegon could be the only athlete on this list to set three individual world records and win two major championships on the track at different distances in the same year. And if she chooses to extend her season beyond August, she’ll have a chance to defend her Diamond League 1500m title a few weeks later in Eugene.
– Our “Top 25 Record Breaking Seasons in modern Track and Field” – in no particular order – begins with two athletes that Kipyegon has taken records away from during her stellar 2023 season:
Records That Kipyegon Beat
2019 Sifan Hassan | World Records: 2
It's not news that Sifan Hassan has range. The 2023 London Marathon champ is a former world champion over 1500m (in 2019 when Kipyegon won silver just a year after giving birth). While Hassan’s mile record may have only lasted four years before falling last month, Svetlana Masterkova’s mark that she took down held as the best in the world for 23 years. This was Hassan’s second world record in Monaco that year, back in February she broke the world record for the road 5k.
The Dutch star lost 6 of her 17 races in 2019, but won when it mattered. She won the 10,000m at the World Championships in Doha in just her second ever race at the distance, and doubled back later in the meet to win 1500m gold with a European and championship record (3:51.95). The incredible double had never been achieved at any global championship on the mens or womens side. She also became the first athlete to ever win both the 1500m and 5000m at the Diamond League final. Hassan ended the season with the world lead in the 1500m (6th fastest all time), mile, 3,000m (European record), and 10,000m (first in history to have world leads in the 1500m and 10,000m in the same year). She also became the 8th fastest woman over 5000m in history and had the 5th fastest half marathon of the year.
2015 Genzebe Dibaba | World Records: 2
In 2015 Genzebe Dibaba and Faith Kipyegon squared off over 1500m – both athletes’ signature distance – three times. The three races were the heats, semi-finals, and final of the event at the World Championships in Beijing, and Dibaba won each one en route to the gold, while Kipyegon took home her first global medal with a silver. Although Dibaba was in the middle of the best season of her career, it wasn’t hard to see that the 21-year-old Kipyegon had the chance to surpass her one day. Apart from that one week in August, Kipyegon holds the head to head advantage in 1500s 7-2, has far surpassed Dibaba’s medal count, and has now taken down her predecessor’s world record. But that shouldn’t allow us to forget how special Dibaba was over a two year stretch culminating in 2015.
Aside from breaking the 1500m record that had stood for 22 years, she took over five seconds off the indoor 5000m world record, a mark that still stands today. In addition to her 1500m win in Beijing, she took home bronze in the 5000m, a distance where she ran the 4th fastest time in history earlier in the season. When considering the entire season, 2015 was the best year of Dibaba’s career, but we can’t move on without mentioning her month of February the year before. In just over two weeks, Dibaba broke indoor world records in the 1500m, 3000m, and two mile by a combined 16 seconds, two of which still stand. The 3000m time remains the fastest at the distance indoor or outdoor outside of the 1993 Chinese National Games – an event heavily suspected of, well… choose your conspiracy – which also produced the “unbreakable” 1500m world record that she would take down the next year. With these performances, Dibaba became the only athlete in history to break three individual world records in a 15-day span. Three world records in one year is a lot, but the same number of records that has garnered Kipyegon so much attention this year has been topped before, and we take a look at those seasons below.
Seasons with four or more world records
1998 Haile Gebreselassie | World Records: 4
A six-time world and Olympic gold medalist in the 10,000m, Haile Gebreselassie may have had his best season in an off-year. He started his 1998 season with an 800m loss in January, but this would be his only loss of the season and ultimately served as a tune up for a rewriting of the record books. He broke his own indoor 3000m record by over four seconds, and the indoor 2000m world record that had stood for eleven years, and in between he ran an indoor 1500m in 3:31.76, a time only previously topped by world champion Hicham El Guerrouj.
Then it was time to move outdoors and up to the distances where Gebreselassie dominated. He took back world records in both the 5,000m and the 10,000m which would each stand for the next six years after being traded around like a hot potato throughout the mid-90s. He unsurprisingly dominated his competition given that he was running the fastest times in history. He won the IAAF Golden League Jackpot at the 5k/10k distance, and by year’s end held world leads of 14 seconds and 24 seconds respectively in his signature events. All in all, the one blemish on his resume – a 1:50 800m – actually looks pretty impressive for someone who can run a 26:22 10,000m showing his unprecedented range.
1982 Mary Decker-Tabb | World Records: 6
Mary Decker set her first world record at just 16 years old. Eight years later she was already regarded as the greatest American female distance runner of all time, and then went on to have the best season of her career. Decker-Tabb went undefeated in 1982, running world record times in distances ranging from the mile, all the way up to 10,000m. Perhaps her most prolific event was the indoor mile, where in three races over the span of a month, Decker-Tabb lowered the world record in the event from 4:28.5 to 4:20.5. She also set an indoor world record in the 3000m, breaking the previous mark by over three seconds.
Decker-Tabb continued her dominance outdoors by taking down the world record in the 2000m, and running two of the five fastest miles in history, including a world record run by over two and a half seconds, becoming the first woman to break 4:20. In longer distances she ran the fourth fastest 3000m time in history and broke the 5000m world record at the Prefontaine Classic. Her final race of the year was her debut over 10,000m, and she blasted the existing world record by ten seconds. Over the next few seasons Decker-Tabb would better her times, many of which lasted as American records that have been only recently bested, and some that still stand today.
1981 Sebastian Coe | World Records: 4
Before Sebastian Coe was the most important man in track and field, he was the fastest man in track and field. The current head of World Athletics had a stretch from 1979 to 1981 where he and countryman Steve Ovett traded world records over both the mile and its metric counterpart, while Coe also ran record breaking times in the 800m. In 1981 Coe was coming off his first Olympic gold in the 1500m – three years later he would defend his title and remains the only man in history to do so – an event that he didn’t even consider his specialty.
The 24-year-old Brit didn’t start slow as he broke the indoor 800m world record in just his second race of the season, and then in just his second race outdoors, broke his own outdoor 800m record as well. In July he stepped up in distance and ran the fourth fastest 1500m of all time, just four days before topping his own 1000m world record. Later, within a ten day span in August, Coe took back the mile world record from his rival, lost it once again to Ovett, and then finally ended the battle with a mark that would stand for the next four years. Coe ended his undefeated season by winning the 800m at the IAAF World Cup, an event that used to serve as the de facto global championship in off years between the Olympics and World Championships.
1978 Henry Rono | World Records: 4
Although he may not have set as many world records as Decker-Tabb just a few years later, Rono’s spectacular 1978 was the inspiration for this whole thought experiment in the first place. One of the most remarkable aspects of Rono’s record breaking season was that since he was still in college, he raced 35 times – and won 30 of them – a bizarre number for a distance runner! The Washington State Cougar’s first record of the year came in the most recognized event, taking over four seconds off the 5000m world record. Next came his signature event, he blasted the 3000m steeplechase record by over two and a half seconds with a collegiate record that still stands 45 years later. At the NCAA championships he broke meet records in the steeplechase and 5000m in the same day during the prelims of both events, then came back the next day and bettered his steeple record en route to victory.
Later in the summer Rono went overseas and broke the 3000m world record by over three seconds and took over eight seconds off the existing 10,000m record that had stood for five years. The Kenyan represented his country well in the championships that were available to him that summer, winning double gold in the All-Africa Games in the 10,000m and the 3000m steeplechase (the only athlete to ever achieve the feat) and the Commonwealth Games in the 5000m and the 3000m steeplechase (the last athlete to achieve the feat). Before and after his record breaking stretch, Rono put up many other impressive times, including running two of the seven fastest indoor two miles of all time – and winning a half marathon in between them – and ending his season with the fifth fastest outdoor two mile in history. Rono never again reached his peak which unfortunately came in between Olympic cycles, leaving him without an impressive medal collection. The same however cannot be said for the following group of athletes.
Heavy Medal Seasons
2009 Usain Bolt | World Records: 3
If you thought this article was getting a little too distance heavy, this is the section for you, as we are going to try to do the impossible: compare the successes of distance runners and sprinters without anyone getting mad. Sprinters often have more of an ability to contest multiple events, especially on the world’s biggest stage, where they can transcend the sport and become household names. There may be no greater example of that than Usain Bolt, and while the Jamaican sprinter first became world famous with his record breaking performance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, his sequel the next year at the World Championships in Berlin was even more impressive.
With Bolt now securely in his peak, he was untouchable going undefeated over 15 finals in 2009, including two 400m races to open his season – not counted in that tally is the 150m “world best” he set on the road, the fastest time in the history of the distance. By the time he got to Berlin, the question wasn’t whether or not he would win, the only thing he was racing was the clock. His first race was the 100m, and after running the fastest ever prelim time at the World Championships, he demolished his own record by .11 seconds, taking the largest chunk off the record since the introduction of electric timing.
Bolt had more competition in the 200m final which marked the first time that four men had run under 19.9 in a single race in history. Despite fast times from those around him, Bolt won gold on the eve of his 23rd birthday with the largest margin of victory in championship history, and took .11 seconds off another of his world records from the year before. His new records still stand 14 years later. His final record of the championships was a rather inconspicuous one, as it wasn’t ratified until eight years later. Bolt and his Jamaican teammates ran what was, at the time, the second fastest 4x100m time ever en route to his third gold medal, but it wasn’t until 2017 that a drug test of Bolt’s 2008 teammate Nesta Carter came back positive and their Beijing record was stripped. The 2009 team was retroactively awarded the world record even though their time had since been beaten. Bolt ended his season with a championship record in the 200m at the IAAF Final as well as a third result under 19.6 that season, a time that only two other men had reached in their entire career.
Bolt’s triple gold, with each one in world record fashion, brings us to a quick reminder of two fantastic Olympic performances that fell outside the scope of this article but should not be omitted. Both Marjorie Jackson in 1952 and Wilma Rudolph in 1960 set world records in the 100m, 200m, and anchoring their respective 4x100m teams. Rudolph won Olympic gold in all three events in Rome, and did so via world record in the 100m and 4x100m, while Jackson won the 100m/200m double with a pair of records in Helsinki, but her Australian 4x100m team failed to medal after setting a world record in the heats.
2004 Kenenisa Bekele | World Records: 3
In just his second race of the 2004 season, 21-year-old Kenenisa Bekele set an indoor 5000m world record that still stands nearly 20 years later. He then won gold medals in both the short and long course races at the World Cross Country Championships in Brussels – a feat he completed five times in the nine-year history of the short race.
In the midst of cementing himself as the greatest cross country runner of all time, he returned to the track and broke the world records of his predecessor Gebreselassie in both the 5000m and 10,000m in the span of just nine days. At the 2004 Olympics in Athens he ran both of his signature events, looking to become the first athlete to win double gold since 1980. He won the 10,000m in Olympic record time – taking down another of Gebreselassie’s marks – but was outkicked in the 5000m by Hicham El Guerrouj, who was achieving a career-defining double of his own. The silver medal was the result of Bekele’s only loss of the season over 11 races; he would come back and achieve the double gold four years later in Beijing.
1999 Maurice Greene | World Records: 2
Top 100m sprinters usually have at least one of two skills: a quick start that spells success for a successful 60m career, or a strong finish that shows the athlete can also excel over 200m. Rarely does an athlete have both. Maurice Greene however showed unprecedented range for a sprinter in his 1999 season. Greene’s indoor season saw him tie the 50m world record, run two of the five fastest 60m times in history, including coming within .01 seconds of his own world record, and culminated in a gold medal in the 60m at the World Indoor Championships in Japan.
The outdoor season, however, is where Greene cemented his all-time great year. Early in the season he broke the world record in the 100m by .05 seconds – at the time the largest gap since the start of electronic timing – and ended the season with the two fastest (and #7) marks in history. Greene remains the only man to hold both the 60m and 100m world records simultaneously. At the World Championships in Seville, he ran under 10 seconds three more times en route to gold, giving him nine legal times under the barrier that season, tying the previous record (Greene would end his career with the most runs under 10 seconds, a mark that stands third today tied with Usain Bolt). He also took home the 200m world title in Seville, becoming the first man to achieve that double in World Championship history, as well as the first 60m world champion to also win a gold medal in the 200m. Lastly he anchored the U.S. men’s 4x100m team to his fourth global gold medal of the year. By the end of the year Greene had triumphed in 25 of his 30 finals, and was the “Fastest Man in the World” any way you looked at it.
1996 Michael Johnson | World Records: 1
Michael Johnson’s 1996 season was all about showing up when it mattered most. He won 14 of his 16 finals over 200m and 400m, with both losses coming in the shorter distance. The indoor season saw Johnson come tantalizingly close to his own indoor 400m world record in Atlanta, a precursor of his outdoor success in Georgia’s capital city. In preparation for the city’s hosting of the 1996 Summer Olympics, the U.S. Olympic Trials were held there the month before the Games.
At the Trials, Johnson clinched his Olympic berths in style by breaking the world record in the 200m that had stood for 17 years and coming within .15 seconds of the eight year old 400m world record. Later that summer in the very same stadium, he cruised to Olympic gold in the longer event, completing his lap around the track almost a full second faster than the next closest finisher, and setting a new Games record. Just three days later in the 200m final, Johnson obliterated the competition, despite silver medalist Frankie Fredericks running what would have been a world record time just two months prior. That is because Johnson’s time of 19.32 marked the largest improvement upon the 200m world record in the history of the event. Over Johnson’s two record breaking runs he took a staggering four tenths of a second off the previous world record that had stood for over a decade and a half. The American was the star of the Olympiad as he became the first – and remains the only – man to ever win both the 200m and 400m finals in the same global championship. Only a strained leg muscle kept him from capturing a third medal on the United States’s 4x400m winning team.
1988 Jackie Joyner-Kersee | World Records: 1
When we talk about having versatility, nobody does more events than a heptathlete (well, other than decathletes), making arguably the best heptathlete of all time, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, an easy addition to this list. While she only set one world record throughout the season, it took mastery of seven different disciplines to do it. Joyner-Kersee furthered her own heptathlon world record two different times in her biggest competitions of the year. Her first record came in the U.S. Olympic Trials, before topping it in the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul with a 7291 point score that won gold and still stands as the top mark 35 years later.
But what really took Joyner-Kersee’s season to the next level were her performances outside of her combined event competitions. Along with her heptathlon win in Seoul she competed in the long jump as an individual event and won gold with an Olympic record, the 7.4m jump stood as a top ten mark all time. With this performance, Joyner-Kersee remains the only woman to win the heptathlon and an individual event in any global championship. Over the duration of the season, the American won 13 of her 15 competitions across six individual events (indoor 55m hurdles, indoor 60m hurdles, 100m hurdles, 400m hurdles, long jump, and shot put), moved up to fifth on the all time indoor long jump leaderboard, and tied the second fastest 55m hurdles time in history. These individual performances are what separates her year from other record breaking heptathlon/decathlon seasons from the likes of Ashton Eaton and other greats that did not make this list
1984 Carl Lewis | World Records: 1
While Carl Lewis set multiple 100m world records, and low altitude long jump world records in his career, none of them came in 1984. So why is this the season that gets him on the list? He punctuated his historic performance in the 1984 Summer Olympics by anchoring the U.S. 4x100m team to his fourth gold medal of the games in world record fashion. On home soil in Los Angeles, Lewis won gold in the 100m, the 200m, the long jump, and the 4x100m, a feat reminiscent of Jesse Owens’s miraculous performance in the 1936 Berlin Games. If this list were to go all the way back to the 1930’s, it would certainly include May 25, 1935, a day where Owens fit an entire season’s worth of record breaking into a single day. Within a 45 minute span, he set world records in the long jump, 220 yard dash, and the 220 yard low hurdles – it's speculated that he may have set records in the 200m and 200m low hurdles en route – and tied the world record in the 100 yard dash.
Back to Lewis, though – his 200m performance in LA was an Olympic record, and he ended the season with three of the top six times in history at the distance. He won all nine of his 200m finals in 1984, as well as all thirteen of his 100m finals, an event where he broke the ten second barrier three times – something only one man had done before him – giving him four of the top nine times in history. Lewis also won all eight long jump competitions on the season - giving him three of the top seven all-time marks in arguably his best event - amidst a ten year stretch in which he out jumped the competition 65 times in a row. The only races that Lewis lost all year were one-offs at non-traditional distances (indoor 50m, indoor 55m, indoor 60m, 300m). With Lewis and Joyner-Kersee making it onto the list, field event fans might finally be listening, so let's hold their attention a little longer.
Pick your pole vault poison
2004/05 Yelena Isinbayeva | World Records: 2
The one event where it might be the easiest to break world records in is the pole vault. We are seeing that now with Mondo Duplantis. Once you become the best to ever do it, every time you set a personal best, it's a world record – and crucially, you only have to go up one centimeter at a time. But while Duplantis has raised his indoor and outdoor pole vault records (we separate the two as different records for the purpose of this article) a total of eight times since February of 2020, he is far from the first one to rewrite the record books in this way.
Over the span of two years in 2004 and 2005, Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva advanced both the indoor and outdoor women’s world records in the event a combined TWENTY times! She brought the indoor world record up from 4.81m to 4.91m, and the overall world record from 4.82m to 5.01m. Compare this to Duplantis who has been the world record holder for over three years now but has only brought the overall world record up by six centimeters. Isinbayeva became the first woman in history to clear 5 meters – a feat only two women have accomplished in nearly 20 years since – and by the end of 2005 held the top-17 vaults of all time.
The Russian competed 27 times over the two years, and suffered three surprising losses, but showed up on the biggest stage claiming world indoor and Olympic titles in 2004 and a world outdoor title in 2005, with all three coming in world record fashion. The biggest blemish on Isinbayeva’s career was her involvement in Russia’s state-wide doping scandal that came to light before the 2016 Rio Olympics. Like all of her countrymen and women she was banned from the Games and decided to retire, only to be hired as the head of Russia’s anti-doping agency after publicly criticizing WADA and their decision of the ban. It is fair to be skeptical of Isinbayeva’s records, but it is important to note that she specifically was never implicated in the scandal.
1991 Sergey Bubka | World Records: 2
Unlike Isinbayeva, Sergey Bubka had already been the world record holder in the pole vault for over half a decade when he had his greatest record breaking year. In 1991 the 27-year-old Bubka had the greatest season of his career. He broke his own indoor record four different times, raising it from 6.05m to 6.12m, and brought his outdoor mark up by four centimeters over four record breaking jumps. Representing the Soviet Union in the last year before the country would be dismantled, Bubka’s 1991 season featured the eight highest vaults of all time, gold medals at both world indoor, and world outdoor championships – both in meet records, and an undefeated resume over 25 competitions.
The soon to be Ukrainian would further his world records over the next three years, but would never have a season that quite matched 1991 where he cleared six meters in competition a remarkable ten different times. This record stood until just last year when Duplantis vaulted the height fifteen different times. Unlike Isinbayeva, Bubka has taken a strong stance in favor of fighting doping in the sport in his retirement as a member of the IOC’s executive board and vice president of World Athletics. And while we’re on the subject, we might as well get this next section out of the way.
Inclusions Some People Might be Mad About
1988 Florence Griffith Joyner | World Records: 2
Each of the following athletes have long standing records to their name, but the prevailing narrative around all three is that these records may have been assisted, in one way or another.
But since as of now the widespread skepticism hasn’t resulted in a removal of these records from the books, they have made their way to this list.
The 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials are where Florence Griffith Joyner’s historic season begins to take shape, as in the prelims of the 100m she runs 10.49 seconds, taking down the previous world record by an astounding .27 seconds. Her semi-final and final performances also went under the previous world record, but the prelim performance was the headline. Aside from the later substance suspicions raised in the press and by other athletes, this record is also questioned about having been wind legal. Although the wind gauge read 0.0 m/s, it was believed to be broken as wind readings were high throughout the day, and during Griffith Joyner’s record run, the nearby device at the long jump pit showed an illegal tailwind.
Nonetheless, FloJo went on to win Olympic gold in the 100m in a Games record, as well as the 200m, setting world records in both the semi-final, and final, bringing the mark down by over a third of a second to where it still stands today. She added to her medal tally with gold in the 4x100m and silver, anchoring the U.S. 4x400m team that went under the previous world record but still lost to the Soviet Union. By season’s end Griffith Joyner was undefeated on the year in 21 races over 100m and 200m, with her only loss coming in a season opening 400m.
1983 Jarmila Kratochvilova | World Records: 2
Jarmila Kratochvilova’s 800m world record, one of the longest standing in the history of the sport, just recently celebrated its 40th birthday. The record is questionable to many as Kratochvilova was the subject of drug use rumors throughout her career. But she has maintained her innocence and even when a 2006 report uncovered a government run doping program in Czechoslovakia, there was no link to its highest profile athlete.
Her incredible 1983 season started indoors where she ran two of the four fastest indoor 400m marks in history and won the European title at the distance. Winning was not unusual for Kratochvilova, who went undefeated in all 16 of her finals over the year across six events (100m, 200m, 400m indoor/outdoor, 800m indoor/outdoor). Also in her indoor season, she ran the fastest time ever for an indoor 800m, but it was not eligible for record purposes as it occurred on an oversized track. Her spectacular season continued outdoors with two of the top three times in history – including the world record – in both the 400m and 800m. The Czech shined at the first ever World Championships where she won both events, and it served as the setting for her world record in the one lap event. In addition to her 400m/800m double – a feat that has only been achieved one other time in history at a global championship (1976 Olympics, Alberto Juantorena) – she also anchored her team to a silver medal in the 4x400m.
1979 Marita Koch | World Records: 2
Competing in East Germany in the 70s and 80’, Marita Koch was another athlete surrounded by a state-sponsored doping program. At the time, the technology was not advanced enough for these drugs to be detected, but many test results were saved. In the 1990s, German anti-drug activists conducted research on many East German athletes from the decades prior and Koch was among them. The findings showed that Koch had used an anabolic steroid from 1981 to 1984, the period just before she set her “unbreakable” 400m world record in 1985.
Given that it remains on the official record books, there is no reason for us to leave Koch off this list for her performances prior to 1981. In 1979, Koch had not reached the sub-48 barrier, but may have still had the best season of her career. Over 18 races across the 60m, 200m, and 400m distance she lost only twice and her top end performances were utterly dominant. Koch lowered her own 200m world record twice, and clocked five of the six fastest times in history over the course of the season. Similarly, Koch broke her own 400m world record two different times, and her three races at the distance that year all ranked within the four fastest marks all time.
History’s Best Milers
1999 Hicham El Guerrouj | World Records: 2
Let’s start by acknowledging that most of the late-90’s to early 2000’s stretch is a tainted period for many track fans, as drug testing was not as strong as it is today, and many of the top athletes were suspected of using the performance enhancing drug known as “EPO”. But at this point I am tired of talking about doping so let’s talk about how dominant Hicham El Guerrouj was, because if everyone was doing it, he was impressively crushing the “enhanced” versions of a lot of top athletes.
This is what makes it so hard to choose just one great season by El Guerrouj; at his peak from 1998 to 2002, he won 60 of 61 races, with his only loss coming in the 2000 Olympic 1500m final. In 1999, El Guerrouj set his most famous world record, breaking the six-year-old mile record by over a second. He only ran ten races but began expanding his range beyond just the mile and its metric counterpart. The Morrocan set a new world record over 2000m, a mark that still stands nearly 25 years later, as does his mile best. Other than his world records, El Guerrouj also ran the second fastest 3000m in history as well as two of the eight fastest 1500m performances all time. Even though he skipped the indoor season and a chance to defend his indoor 1500m world title, he won his second of four consecutive outdoor 1500m titles in Seville, the only middle distance runner to put together such a streak.
1995 Noureddine Morceli | World Records: 2
Before Hicham El Guerrouj became the greatest middle distance runner in history, that title belonged to Algerian star Noureddine Morceli. The 1995 season saw Morceli set the last two world records of his illustrious career within a span of ten days. The first record to fall was the 2000m world record which he broke by almost three seconds. Just over a week later he bested his own 1500m record that he set three years prior, and he blasted it by a second and a half – the biggest improvement on the record since 1967. Just after his world record he won his third consecutive world championship gold at the distance, showing he was not yet ready to cede his throne to El Guerrouj. Morceli ended the season without a loss over 16 races across five different distances, and ran historic times in each one. The world champion ran the three best 1500m times in history – running over three seconds faster than anyone else that year – as well as the third fastest indoor mark all time. He also came up just short of his own mile world record, with the number two performance all time, and ran two of the seven fastest 3000m times in history.
1985 Steve Cram | World Records: 3
After fellow Brits Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett traded middle distance world records at the beginning of the decade, the younger Steve Cram topped their times just a few years later as his predecessors approached 30-years-old. Two of Cram’s losses in the season came to Coe and Ovett, but he had clearly surpassed them overall. The younger Brit took down Coe’s mile world record, which then went unbroken for the longest period since Roger Bannister set the record in historic fashion. Cram also broke Ovett’s 1500m record, becoming the first man to run under 3:30 for the event. He also took down the nine year old 2000 world record, with all three of his record runs coming in a span of just 19 days. Five days later he came up just short of a fourth world record in under a month, finishing less than a second slower than Coe’s record over 1000m. In his last race of the season, Cram stepped down in distance, running a significant personal best in the 800m to become the fifth fastest man of all time over the two lap race. Because the World Championships were still on a four year cycle at the time however, there was no major championship for Cram to show off his greatness on the global stage. And now because I have no clever segue from this section to the next, we’ll get right to the point and move on to the final group of athletes.
One of a Kind Feats
2007 Meseret Defar | World Records: 3
While the mile is arguably the most prestigious world record in track and field, its eight lap counterpart is much less often contested. By 2007, Sonia O’Sullivan’s world record for two miles in a women’s race had gone untouched for nine years. Then, in the span of just two races, Meseret Defar brought the record down by 21 seconds – an unthinkable accomplishment that could be compared to someone breaking the mile world record by over ten seconds! The record stood at 9:19.56 before Defar’s record-breaking runs of 9:10.47 in May and 8:58.58 in September. She became the first woman to cover the distance in under nine minutes, something that wouldn’t be achieved again for another fifteen years. In between those two races, the Ethiopian smashed her own 5000m record set the year before by nearly eight seconds. Defar’s outdoor success was foreshadowed by an indoor season where she ran the sixth fastest indoor 3000m time in history, just a week before crushing the world record in the event by four seconds. Her only loss in fifteen races on the year took place later that month in a road 10k. Defar also had success on the global stage beginning with a championship record, gold medal performance in the 5000m at the All-Africa Games, followed by another gold in the 5000m at the World Championships in Osaka, and finishing the year with a world lead, championship record, first place finish in the 3000m at the IAAF World Athletics Final in Germany.
1992 Moses Kiptanui | World Records: 3
In 1992, 21-year-old Moses Kiptanui had about as good a season as he could have asked for, with one major exception. The self-coached Kenyan won all but one of his twelve races over six different disciplines, and set world records in three of them, but failed to qualify for his country’s Olympic team – the Kenyan steeplechase team was extremely difficult to make as it wound up putting three athletes on the podium in Barcelona. Despite not being able to show his chops on the global stage, the reigning world champion in the steeplechase ran impressive times at every track he showed up to. His first world record of the year came in the indoor season when he broke the record over 3000m by over two seconds. He later set the record over the same distance outdoors just three days before blowing away the world record in his signature event, the steeplechase, by over three seconds. He ended his season by running the second fastest time in history over barriers, and over the year had also racked up the eighth fastest 2000m time in history, and top five marks all time in the indoor two mile and 5000m, coming within a second of being the second athlete in history to break the thirteen minute barrier. He got Olympic redemption four years later in Atlanta winning the silver medal, but never won gold and fans will only get to imagine if 1992 would have been his year to do so.
1987 Said Aouita | World Records: 3
In 1987 Said Aouita became the first man to run under 13 minutes in the 5000m, a mark no other athlete would reach for almost seven more years. Just six days prior, Aouita had set the 2000m world record, showing off his impressive range. The Moroccan star won 21 of his 22 races across nine different distances over the course of the season, and his one loss may have been his most impressive feat. At the 1987 Mediterranean Games in Syria, Aouita closed out his season with a remarkable triple. He started by winning gold in the 1500m and 5000m on back to back days – a double that had never been achieved before at the meet in its 36 year history – with both performances coming within a second of Games records. Three days later he won the silver medal in the first and only 3000m steeplechase of his career, clocking a national record and was nearly two seconds away from a third gold. Earlier in the championship season Aouita won 5000m gold at the World Championships in Rome in a meet record time. Across other distances over the season, Aouita broke the nine year old world record over two miles, ran the second fastest mile in history, and the seventh fastest 1500m ever. The next year Aouita would win Olympic bronze in the 800m, becoming the only athlete to win Olympic medals over both 5000m and 800m. While 1987 may have been the peak of his career, Aouita was at the top of the sport for a long stretch, over a seven year span from 1983 to 1990, the Moroccan lost only four of his 119 races!
1986 Ingrid Kristiansen | World Records: 2
Watching Sifan Hassan attempt to triple at this year’s World Championships in between her spring and fall marathons may seem unprecedented, and to fans of a certain age it is. But throughout her career Norwegian Ingrid Kristiansen competed at a high level on the track while simultaneously being regarded as arguably the greatest marathoner of her time. This is much different than the model most athletes take in today’s era: while Eluid Kipchoge had world class careers on the track and on the roads, the two can clearly be partitioned around 2012. In 1986 Kristiansen was undefeated in 16 races ranging all the way from 3000m to the marathon. Prior to her first big race of the year, the Boston Marathon – where she set the course record in hot conditions with the eighth fastest time in history, she ran the third fastest 15k all time. Before she headed back to the marathon, finishing her season with a win in Chicago, Kristiansen had other success on the roads with the second fastest half marathon of all time and two of the eight fastest road 10k’s in history. The 30-year-old’s biggest success that season however came on the track, Kristiansen broke her own 10,000m world record by 46 SECONDS(!), and then won the event at the European Championships with the second fastest time in history. Over half the distance she was just as impressive; just a week after running the fifth fastest 5000m time in history, she broke the world record by nearly eleven seconds, and after the record had been lowered fourteen times in the last nine years, Kristiansen’s mark went unbroken for almost a decade.
1979 Renaldo Nehemiah | World Records: 3
In the research for this article, a number of hurdlers came close to making the list; from Colin Jackson, Aries Merritt, and Grant Holloway, to Dalilah Muhammad, Karsten Warholm, and Sydney McLaughlin, each one fell just short of making the cut. The 400m hurdlers tended to be too specialized in one event, and while the 110m hurdlers usually doubled in the 60m hurdles, none ever put an indoor and outdoor record breaking season into one. What made Nehemiah’s season so special, aside from setting world records over multiple sprint distances, was his proficiency in flat events as well. The college sophomore at Maryland won 33 of his 34 races, going undefeated late into the season, even in his non-marquee events. Nehemiah’s record breaking started in just his second race of the season, taking down the top mark in the unconventional 55m indoor hurdles, a record that still stands over 40 years later. He would also run three of the five fastest times in history over in the 50m hurdles, including another world record just two weeks after his first. In the more traditional 60m hurdles, Nehemiah ran the fourth fastest time ever. When the calendar turned to outdoor season however, the 20-year-old took it to another gear, in each of his first two 110m hurdles races, Nehemiah broke the world record both times, bringing the mark from 13.21 to 13.00. By season's end, he had run the four fastest marks in history - this didn’t include a wind aided 12.91 at NCAA Championships, the fastest all-conditions mark ever at the time, and a 12.8 hand timed mark, the fastest performance of its kind.
Presented with this information, it’s clear Kipyegon’s incredible season is not the first of its kind, but is it the best? Since you’ve made it this far, we’ll leave the decision up to you.
Huge sports fan turned massive track nerd. Statistics major looking to work in sports research. University of Connecticut club runner (faster than Chris Chavez but slower than Kyle Merber).