Feature07 Mar 2021

Remembering the landmark 1991 World Indoor Championships in Seville


Hollis Conway, Noureddine Morceli and Merlene Ottey (© Getty Images)

The third edition of the World Indoor Championships, staged 30 years ago in Seville's Palacio De Los Deportes from 8-10 March 1991, proved – in terms of records – to be the best yet.

Both the inaugural championships in Indianapolis in 1987 and the second edition in Budapest in 1989 yielded five world indoor records, but Seville topped that with world records in six events: men's 5000m race walk, 4x400m relay and women's 200m (equal), triple jump, 5000m race walk and 4x400m relay. The nearest approach to that figure since then has been four record-breaking disciplines in 2004.

Jamaica's Merlene Ottey was involved in two fast races. A poor start ended her chances of winning the 60m and she recovered well to clock 7.08, but the clear-cut winner was Irina Sergeyeva (later Privalova), whose time of 7.02 took her to second on the all-time list behind Nelli Cooman’s 7.00 in 1986.

Two days after her 60m defeat, Ottey gained her revenge in a cracking 200m, equalling her own week-old world record of 22.24 to retain her title. Unlike Sergeyeva, who was at the start of her big-time career, Ottey was already one of the all-time greats. She is the only woman to have captured nine Olympic medals (three silver, six bronze), while competing in seven Olympics between 1980 and 2004 is also a record.

As always indoors, the field events attracted considerable attention, the fans being that much closer to the action, and they were rewarded with several fine displays.

Ukrainian Sergey Bubka had the nerve to enter the pole vault contest at 5.70m and pass at 5.80m. His confidence was not misplaced, for he went on to make 5.86m and 6.00m and the crowd of about 4000 fans stayed on long after the track events had finished to encourage the greatest ever vaulter as he attempted to add two centimetres to his world record of 6.08m.

He didn't succeed that time but later that month he cleared 6.10m (or – in US terms – 20 feet), 6.11m and 6.12m. In 1993 he reached 6.15m, which stood unchallenged until Renaud Lavillenie cleared 6.16m 21 years later ... and now Mondo Duplantis is the top man with his marks of 6.17m and 6.18m last year. But the young Swede will have to go some to rival Bubka's six outdoor and three indoor world titles, an Olympic gold medal (missing an earlier chance in 1984 because of the Soviet boycott) and 27 official outdoor and indoor world records.

The other jumping highlights were provided by Bubka's Ukrainian colleague Inessa Kravets, who triple jumped a world indoor record of 14.44m in what was termed an invitation event, and high jumpers Heike Henkel of Germany (2.00m) and Hollis Conway, whose 2.40m clearance was a North American record indoors or out, and even more remarkable in that standing at just 1.83m (6ft) tall he jumped 57 centimetres over his head.

Beate Anders, winner of the women’s 3000m race walk, became the first athlete from a reunified Germany to win a world title. She had set a world record of 11:56.0 the previous month and her duel with Australia's defending champion Kerry Saxby, who had clocked 11:51.76 outdoors, was seemingly a clash to savour. Ultimately, however, there was no contest.

Anders opened a significant gap by 1000m (3:55.17) and, despite a warning, was further ahead at 2000m (7:53.00). By the finish in 11:50.90 her margin over Saxby was more than 12 seconds. The record came as a pleasant surprise but Anders may have been less enchanted by a translator quoting her as “I feel very proud to run for Germany”.

Mikhail Shchennikov completed a remarkable hat-trick of world indoor titles and records in his 5000m race walk event. Following successes in Indianapolis (18:27.79) and Budapest (18:27.10), this time he sped to an 18:23.55 clocking. It was a close call, though, for Giovanni De Benedictis also finished inside the previous record of 18:23.88 with 18:23.60. In fact the Italian was only overhauled in the final step or two.

The last kilometre was covered in 3:28.95, which is about 5:36 miling pace. Such a turn of speed arouses suspicion regarding fair walking but the judging was strict with 10 disqualifications from the heats and final. Shchennikov went on to win several more prestigious medals, including a fourth successive world indoor title in 1993, the 1994 European 20km championship and the 1996 Olympic silver medal at 50km.

The meeting's other two world records came in the newly included 4x400m relays. In the men's race the German team defeated the USA, 3:03.05 to 3:03.24, while Germany triumphed also in the women's race, the squad clocking 3:27.22 to the USSR's 3:27.95.

Other notable winners included Noureddine Morceli, whose 1500m victory marked the first of five global titles won by the Algerian middle-distance runner; shot put winner Werner Gunthor who, like Morceli, won three world outdoor titles; 400m champion Diane Dixon, who six years prior had won the two-lap sprint at the 1985 World Indoor Games, the forerunner to the World Athletics Indoor Championships; and Kenya’s 1988 Olympic champion Paul Ereng, who successfully defended his world indoor 800m title.

Mel Watman for World Athletics Heritage