Record breakers: a retrospective on world records at the European Championships

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As European Athletics celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2020, we take a look back at some of the memorable world record-breaking exploits to be achieved at the European Athletics Championships over the last five decades.

At the first edition of the European Athletics Championships to be held under the auspices of European Athletics – then known as the European Athletic Association (EAA) – in Helsinki 1971, three world records were set on the women’s side and two notable barriers were broken.

In just the second ever running of the 1500m at the European Championships for women, East Germany’s Karin Krebs became the first woman in history to break the 4:10-barrier with gold in 4:09.62. Her teammates also became the first quartet to break the 3:30-barrier in the women’s 4x400m relay with gold in 3:29.28.  

Three world records were also set and another record was equalled fifteen years later at the Stuttgart 1986 European Athletics Championships. One of those records still stands on the record books nearly 35 years later. 

Yuriy Sedykh won his third successive title in the hammer with a massive throw of 86.74m against Soviet rival and teammate Sergey Litvinov whose silver medal-winning throw of 85.74m remains the fifth longest throw in history and the best ever mark for second-place in any competition.

Sedykh’s fourth round mark of 86.74m added eight centimetres to his previous world record although his fifth round throw of 86.68m would have also eclipsed his previous mark. In total, Sedykh had five performances over the 85 metre-line in the final and all seven throws in Stuttgart, including his qualifying throw, exceeded his pre-1986 championship record of 81.66m.

His compatriot Marina Stepanova won the 400m hurdles in Stuttgart in a world record of 53.32 at the age of 36. Great Britain’s Fatima Whitbread also set a world javelin record of 77.44m in front of a sparse crowd in qualifying shortly after 9.00am before winning gold ahead of Petra Felke from East Germany the next day in 76.32m – also in excess of the previous record. 

Heike Drechsler sped to the 200m title in Stuttgart in 21.71 to equal the world record set by fellow East German Marita Koch, who won not only six European titles during her career but also broke three world records at the European Championships in the process. 

Koch became the first athlete to break 49 seconds in the 400m at the 1978 European Championships in Prague with 48.94. This was followed by two more world records in Athens 1982: 3:19.05 in the 4x400m and 48.15 in the 400m, which is still a championship record. 

Another notable barrier was broken by Tatyana Zelentsova at the 1978 European Championships in Prague. In the first ever staging of the 400m hurdles, the Soviet broke the 55-second barrier, winning the title in Prague in 54.89 to lower her own mark from 55.31. Zelentsova went on to coach Stepanova, who succeeded her as world record-holder and went on to win the European title in a world record in 1986.

The women’s world high jump record was beaten or matched at three successive editions of the European Championships. In 1974, East Germany’s Rosemarie Ackermann cleared 1.95m to break the world record before Italy’s Sara Simeoni took the championship record in excess of the 2.00m-barrier with to equal her world record clearance of 2.01m to beat Ackermann in an epic contest in Prague 1978.

That world record lasted for just over four years when West Germany’s Ulrike Meyfarth added one centimetre to the world record with an excellent 2.02m clearance in Athens 1982 with Simeoni having to settle for bronze. 

Meyfarth was to clear another world record of 2.03m at the 1983 European Cup in London, where she was matched by her Soviet rival Tamara Bykova who would clear 2.04m to gain the world record outright just four days later in Pisa.

The toing and froing of the world decathlon record in the 1980s saw Daley Thompson reclaim this accolade from Jurgen Hingsen at the 1982 European Championships in Athens. In one of their very many duels on the big stage in the early-to-mid 1980s, Thompson scored 8743 points – or 8774 points on the current scoring tables – to break the world record and win his first European title. 

One of the most unexpected world records at a European Athletics Championships came from the French 4x100m quartet who clocked 37.79 at the 1990 edition in Split, breaking the record set by the USA at the 1984 Olympic Games to become the last European country to have held the world record in the sprint relay.

 

With the record books reaching their maturity, world records have been a rarer commodity in recent editions of the European Athletics Championships.

Polish race walking great Robert Korzeniowski set a world best – as it was classified then – of 3:36:03 at the Munich 2002 European Athletics Championships in the 50km race walk.

The last world record to be set at the European Athletics Championships was achieved by France’s Yohann Diniz in Zurich 2014. At 36, Diniz won his third successive title in the 50km race walk in a still-standing world record of 3:32:33 to slash almost two minutes from the previous mark.

European Athletics marked the milestone of 50 years with its ’50 Golden Moments’ campaign which celebrated five incredible decades of performances. All 50 videos can be watched in short form version on Facebook or in longer form version on YouTube.

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