Men's 800-Meter World Records, Recognized by the IAAF

Olympics: Day 10, Men's 800m sprint winner David Rudisha
David Rudisha winning an 800 meter sprint for Kenya. Jean Catuffe / Getty Images

The 800-meter event calls for a combination of sprinting speed and stamina, combined with key tactical considerations. Some two-lap runners sprint out to a big lead and hope to hang on as they tire during the second lap. Others lay back and try to wait for just the right moment to sprint for the finish line. The presence of these diverse elements may explain why a few talented 800-meter runners, who've gotten a race just right, have established world records that stood up for a decade or more.

800-Meter World Records

After the IAAF was founded in 1912, the first men’s 800-meter world record recognized by the organization was Ted Meredith’s winning time at the 1912 Olympics. Meredith won the gold medal in 1:51.9, in a close race with fellow Americans Mel Sheppard and Ira Davenport, who both finished in 1:52.0. Meredith’s achievement also produced the first long-lasting 800-meter mark. The record survived for 12 years until Germany’s Otto Peltzer ran 1:51.6 in an 880-yard race in 1926. At the time, the IAAF recognized performances in the 880 – which spans 804.7 meters – for 800-meter world record consideration, just as it then recognized 440-yard times for 400-meter record purposes. Peltzer also broke the 1500-meter world record in 1926, becoming the first runner to hold the 800- and 1500-meter marks simultaneously.

Sera Martin of France lowered the standard to 1:50.6 in 1928, and then Great Britain’s Tommy Hampson and Canada’s Alex Wilson became the first runners to finish 800 meters in less than 1:50, at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Unfortunately for Wilson, Hampson was a bit faster. He was electrically timed in 1:49.70, but under the then-current IAAF rules, he went into the record books with a time of 1:49.8. Wilson was second in 1:49.9. American Ben Eastman matched the 1:49.8 time in 1934, in an 880-yard event.

Annual Record-Breaking

The 800/880 record was broken once each year from 1936-39. American Glenn Cunningham began the record parade by running 1:49.7 in 1936. Another American, Elroy Robinson, broke the mark in an 880-yard race, running 1:49.6 in 1937. Sydney Wooderson of Great Britain lowered the record to 1:48.4 the next year – on his way to a 1:49.2 time in the 880 – before Rudolf Harbig of Germany set an enduring mark of 1:46.6 in 1939, running on a 500-meter track in Milan.

Harbig’s record lasted just past 16 years until Belgium’s Roger Moens ran the 800 in 1:45.7 in 1955. New Zealand’s middle distance ace, Peter Snell, then lowered the mark to 1:44.3 in 1962, on his way to a time of 1:45.1 in the 880. Snell was the last runner to set an 800-meter world record in a longer race. Australia’s Ralph Doubell then became the third man to set the 800-meter record at the Olympics, finishing in 1:44.3 (electronically timed at 1:44.40) in Mexico City in 1968.

Dave Wottle was the last American – as of 2016 – to put his name in the 800-meter record books as he matched Doubell’s 1:44.3 time at the 1972 Olympic Trials. One year later, Italy’s Marcello Fiasconaro lowered the mark below 1:44, finishing in 1:43.7. Cuba’s Alberto Juantorena – who only took up the 800 at his coach’s insistence in 1976 – then broke the record twice. Juantorena set his first mark, 1:43.5, as the surprise winner of the 1976 Olympic gold medal. He then nudged the record down to 1:43.4 at the World University Games the following year.

Sebastian Coe – Lord of the 800

Great Britain’s Sebastian Coe owned the 800-meter world record for the longest time, from July 5, 1979, through Aug. 13, 1997. Coe set his first mark of 1:42.4 in Oslo, which was electronically timed at 1:42.33. The latter number was inserted into the record books when the IAAF began mandating automatic timing for the mark in 1981. Coe's 800-meter performance was also the first of three world records he set within less than six weeks in 1979, as he went on to break the mile and 1500-meter marks. Coe later lowered his 800 marks to 1:41.73, in a 1981 race in Florence.

Kenyan-born Wilson Kipketer was running for Denmark when he matched Coe’s mark in July of 1997. Kipketer then claimed the record for himself the following month, running 1:41.24 in Zurich. Kipketer lowered the mark to 1:41.11 just 11 days later, on Aug. 24, giving him three world-record performances within about six weeks.

Rudisha Takes Charge

Kipketer’s record lasted two days short of 13 years, before Kenya’s David Rudisha ran consecutive races of 1:41.09 and 1:41.01 just one week apart in August of 2010. Rudisha – who trained under the same coach who once taught Kipketer – then lowered the mark to 1:40.91 with a dominating gold-medal run at the 2012 London Olympics. Rudisha ran 49.3 seconds for the first half of the race and 51.6 over the final 400 meters.