The Women's Mile World Records

Svetlana Masterkova
Henri Szwarc / Stringer / Getty Images

The women’s mile world record, and women’s mile running in general, were basically ignored by the track and field establishment and most of the public for many years. Roger Bannister was celebrated as the first man to run a sub-4:00 mile in 1954. But Great Britain’s Diane Leather enjoyed no such headlines just 23 days later when she became the first woman to break the five minute barrier, finishing in 4:59.6 at the Midland Championships at Birmingham. Gender equity hadn’t yet come to track and field. Even the IAAF didn’t recognize a women’s mile world record.

The failure to recognize Leather’s accomplishment wasn’t a matter of the IAAF alone being shortsighted, but an overall lack of recognition for women’s distance running in particular, and to a large degree, women’s athletics in general. For example, at the most recent Olympic Games at that time, 1952, there were only two straight, individual women’s races, the 100 and 200. There was an 800-meter race in 1928 – the first Olympics in which women competed – but the race was discontinued until 1960. The women’s 1500 meters – 109.32 meters short of a mile – wouldn’t be contested in the Olympics until 1972.

Hitting the Record Books for Fastest Mile

Recognized or not, women continued to run distance events. Indeed, Leather eventually lowered her time to 4:45 in 1955. Marise Chamberlain of New Zealand broke Leather’s mark in 1962, running 4:41.4, then Anne Rosemary Smith of Great Britain lowered the record to 4:39.2 in 1967. It was Smith who first gained the IAAF’s attention in June of 1967, when her time of 4:37.0 was ratified by the IAAF as its first official women’s world mile record.

Maria Gommers of the Netherlands edged Smith’s mark in 1969, running 4:36.8, then Ellen Tittel of West Germany brought it down to 4:35.3 in 1971. From there, the mark sank dramatically, as Italy’s Paola Pigni of Italy dipped under the 4:30 mark, running 4:29.5 in 1973. Romania’s Natalia Marasescu took another chunk out of the record with a time of 4:23.8 in 1977, before lowering her record to 4:22.09 in 1979.

Three Records for Mary Slaney

As the mile record was being re-written throughout the ‘70s, a future star was rising in the U.S. Mark Decker – later Mary Slaney – first drew international attention by winning the 800 meters in a USA vs. USSR dual meet in 1972, at age 14. She won the first of her six Millrose Games titles the following year and went on to own the mile world record on three different occasions. She first broke the mark in 1980 with a time of 4:21.68, run at Auckland, at the same meet in which Marasescu had lowered the mark one year earlier.

Lyudmila Veselkova of the former Soviet Union beat Slaney’s mark, running 4:20.89 in 1981, but Slaney took the record back, briefly, the next year, with a time of 4:18.08, becoming the first woman to beat the 4:20 mark. Exactly two months later, however, Maricica Puica ran 4:17.44 to set a record that stood, officially, for almost three years. In 1984, the Soviet Union’s Natalia Artymova was hand-timed in 4:15.8, but her performance wasn’t ratified by the IAAF.

Slaney wasn’t finished, however, as she posted a 4:16.71 time in Zurich in 1985 to set her most enduring world record, which held for almost four years. As of 2012, Slaney’s ultimate performance is still the United States record, and she remains the only woman to run four sub-4:20 times.

Ivan and Masterkova

Paula Ivan of Romania topped Slaney’s world mark in July of 1989, running 4:15.61, before Russia’s Svetlana Masterkova lowered the record to 4:12.56 in Zurich on Aug. 14, 1996. Masterkova’s performance represented the peak of an unusual comeback. Masterkova was an 800-meter runner best known for winning a silver medal at the 1993 World Indoor Championships when she took a maternity break from competition for most of 1994 and ‘95. When she returned in 1996 she decided to run the 1500 as well as the 800, with great success, winning Olympic gold medals in both events. Eleven days after winning the 1500 in the Atlanta Games, Masterkova ran her first-ever mile, at the Weltklasse Grand Prix in Zurich. Using the same tactics that worked in the Olympics, Masterkova set a fast pace and literally ran away with the race, with no competitor near her on the final lap. As of 2015, Masterkova’s record hasn’t been seriously challenged. The fastest time between 1996 and 2015 was Faith Kipyegon's 4:16.71 on Sept. 11, 2015.