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The Historic Series on Olympic Running (I):

The Women’s 800 Metre Race

2004-06-13

In a good two months, the Olympic Games will be opening in Athens. Each week until then we will be introducing one of the eleven running disciplines, as well as naming the favourites for the Olympic gold medals.
This series, however, is on the history of Olympic running—about the past, rich in medals, of the German track and field athletes from both East (GDR) and West (FRG).While in the past German track and field has been very successful at the Olympic Games, following results of the world championships Paris 2003, one cannot expect too much in Athens. It seems even more appropriate then to remember the great achievements of the Germans in the past and to honour their performances. We will start off today with the women’s 800m race. This series on the history of Olympic running will follow the weekly series on running which focuses on Athens 2004—out of respect for the great achievements and as an inspiration for imitation.800 m – The Distance for German Women:The first gold medal for Germany since the beginning of the Olympic Games

Looking back, the 800m distance appears to be the most successful discipline for German women at the Olympic Games. Three gold medals since 1928 are an impressive booty.

Amsterdam 1928
“August 2, 1928 is an historic date for German athletics.

On this day the jinx was finally broken which the German men had been futilely fighting. In the 800m race, Lina Radke-Batschauer (b. October 8, 1903 in Karlsruhe) won the first gold medal for Germany since the beginning of the Olympic Games,” wrote Ekkehard zur Megede in his book, “The History of Olympic Track and Field”, Volume 1, 1896 – 1936.

Lina Radke-Batschauer was not the favourite for the finals, even though she had set a new world record on August 7, 1927 in Breslau with a time of 2:23.7 minutes. Edith Trickey of England had been slightly faster with a time of 2:24.0 for the 880-yard distance (August 1, 1925).

In the finals, Radke-Batschauer began a spurt about 300 m before the finish, which she continued to the end, earning her the gold medal as well as a sensational new world record of 2:16.8. A second German runner, Marie Dollinger, who later had a successful career as a sprinter, crossed the finish in 2:23.0 in 7th place. Elfriede Wever came in 9th.
In 1928 the 800m distance was so new for the women that critics immediately remonstrated that the women so overextended themselves that they had to collapse in the grass after the finish. For that reason, the 800m race was eliminated for the women entirely from the Olympic programme until 1956.

The German women first appeared at the 800m again 32 years later in Rome in 1960

For the first time since the war, an all-German team composed of the DLV (German Athletics Association-FRG) and the DVfL (German Association for Athletics in the GDR) came together to the Games in Rome. Before the event there were tough try-outs in Hanover and Erfurt.
The world record had been improved dramatically from Radke-Batschauer’s 2:16.8 in 1928 to 2:04.3 by Ludmilla Lyssenko-Scherzowa (USSR - in Moscow on July 3, 1960).

Three German runners were in the finals on September 7th in Rome: Ursula Donath, Vera Kummerfeldt and Antje Gleichfeld. The Russian Scherzowa won, matching her own world record of 2:04.3 ahead of Brenda Jones (Australia) in 2:04.4. Ursula Donath surprisingly won the bronze medal in 2:05.6, although she was aided by the fact that Dixie Willis (Australia) fell and Vera Kummerfeldt started her sprint too late. Vera Kummerfeldt came in 4th in 2:05.6 ahead of Antje Gleichfeld in 2:06.5 – a great success for the middle distance runners from Germany.

5th place again for Antje Gleichfeld in Tokyo 1964
Antje Gleichfeld, a mother of two from Hamburg, managed to make it again to the Olympic finals and again came in 5th. In doing so she twice improved the German record previously held by Waltraud Kaufmann, first to 2:04.6 in the intermediate heat, and to 2:03.9 in the finals.
Ann Packer (GBR) won in 2:01.1 (new world record) ahead of Maryvonne Dupureur (FRA) in 2:01.9 and Marise Chamberlain (NZL) in 2:02.8.

“This was the best day in the life of the Olympic champion Hildegard Falck”
covered the title of the journal LEICHTATHLETIK (Track and field magazine)on September 14, 1972, referring to the victory of Hildegard Falck (b. June 8, 1949) in the 800m finals in Munich in 1972. There was a fantastic atmosphere in the stadium in Munich — the Germans had won medals: Klaus Wolfermann in the javelin, Heide Rosendahl won silver in the 200m, Bernd Kannenberg was leading the 50 km walkers. Would the 800m women’s race bring another gold medal?

Two German runners had qualified for the finals: Hildegard Falck (VfL Wolfsburg) and Gunhild Hoffmeister (b. July 6, 1944 in Forst/SC Cottbus, Trainer Werner Janke). Sylvia Schenk and Gisela Ellenberger were eliminated in the intermediate heats with respective times of 2:01.5 and 2:03.0.

There was some confusion before the final race on September 3, 1972 at 6 p.m. as they had considered pushing back the start to accommodate the walkers who would be arriving soon. But then they kept to the schedule. The first 400m were put behind them in 58.31, led by Zlateva, Nikolic and Silai, Falck holding on to Hoffmeister. Just before the final stretch, Hildegard Falck ran from lane 2 to 3, began a sprint and took the lead by about 4 or 5 metres. Then Niele Sabaite (USSR) made her move. On the last 20 metres, Falck increased her speed again and was able to win with a metre lead.

LEICHTAHTLETIK wrote: “An Olympic champion like in the book: a strong runner, able to adjust to changes in the pace, a hard fighter and smart tactician; the gold medal found one worthy of it.” Gold: Hildegard Falck 1:58.6 (OR) - silver: Niele Sabaite (USSR) 1:58.7 and the bronze medal went to Gunhild Hoffmeister 1:59.2.

Montreal 1976 with a bronze medal by Elfi Zinn
There were once again three women in the Olympic finals in Montreal in 1976. Elfi (Rost) Zinn (b. August 24, 1953 in Rathebur – SC Neubrandenburg – Coach Walter Gladrow) came in third in 1:55.60 (new East German record). Gold went to Tatyana Kazankina (USSR) in 1:54.94 (WR) – 2nd Nikolina Shetereva (BUL) 1:55,42 -
4th place: Anita Weiss in 1:55.74 - 7th place Doris Gluth in 1:58.99.

Moscow 1980
4th Martina Kampfert in 1:56.21, 5th Hildegard Ullrich 1:57.20
1st Ndaiya Olizarenko (SOV) 1:53, 42 (WR) – 2nd Olga Mineyeva (SOV) 1:54,81 – 3rd Tatyana Providokhina (SOV) 1:55,46

Los Angeles 1984
7th Margrit Klinger in 2:00.65
1st Doine Melinte (ROM) 1:57,60 – 2nd Kim Gallagher (USA) 1:58,63 – 3rd Fita Lovin (ROM) 1:58,83

Seoul 1988. Gold and silver by Wodars and Wachtel
“In the Olympic 800m finals, Christine Wachtel (b. January 6, 1965 in Altentreptow / SC Neubrandenburg – Coach Walter Gladrow) ran the first 400m in 56.43, thus already leaving some of the finalists by the wayside. Together with Sigrun Wodars (b. November 7, 1965 in Neu-Kaliß / SC Neubrandenburg – Coach Walter Gladrow), they developed the race just as the two women from Neubrandenburg had planned,” wrote LEICHTATHLETIK.
“The results of the Olympic finals reflects the first and second place finishes in last year’s world championships in Rome, where Sigrun Wodars also came out stronger.”
1st Sigrun Wodars 1:56.10 - 2nd Christine Wachtel 1:56.64 – 3rd Kim Gallagher (USA) 1:56. 91

The history of the women’s 800m race is certainly something to be proud of—but several years without further great successes have passed since 1988.
Let us look back with pleasure at the great running past — and still look optimistically to the future.

The women are always good for a surprise!

Horst Milde


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