Series18 Aug 2023

Four decades of influential women at the World Athletics Championships


Grete Waitz, Tirunesh Dibaba, Valarie Adams and Ximena Restrepo (© Getty Images)

Following the historic election of a gender equal World Athletics Council, and as we celebrate 40 years of the World Athletics Championships in 2023, here we highlight 40 women who have had a great impact on our sport – on the field of play and beyond.

When Grete Waitz crossed the finish line of the women’s marathon at the inaugural World Athletics Championships in Helsinki in 1983, she achieved a landmark moment in the sport. As the first World Athletics Championships gold medallist in any discipline, Waitz paved the way, particularly for female athletes who saw a path to follow in her footsteps.

Helsinki may have offered the first women’s marathon world title, but athletics still had a long way to go to reach gender equality, in and out of competition. There were 17 women’s events on the programme in 1983, compared with 24 men’s events, and no women were members of the then-IAAF’s ruling Council.

During the four decades since Waitz’s inaugural title win, there have been another 390 women’s world gold medal-winning moments as well as many other pivotal points off the field of play. There will be 24 more to come over the next nine days at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 23. The sport’s global showpiece has provided the platform and many of the stars in our sport have stepped upon it to show the world what women can do.

Valerie Adams (NZL)

Adams became the first woman to win four consecutive world gold medals in the same individual event, claiming shot put crowns in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2013. She is now the World Athletics Athletes' Commission Deputy Chairperson and sits on the World Athletics Council.

Sally Barsosio (KEN)

At 15 years and 153 days, Barsosio became – and remains – the youngest medallist in the history of the World Championships having secured 10,000m bronze in Stuttgart in 1993. She returned four years later to win gold, becoming the first African winner of the title. Since then, all bar one of the titles have been won by African women.

Ans Botha (NAM)

Perhaps best known for coaching Wayde van Niekerk to two world titles as well as a world record and Olympic gold over 400m, Botha has been an agent of change over decades. She received the Coaching Achievement award in 2017 in recognition of her impact.

Ans Botha receives the Coaching Achievement award in 2017

Ans Botha receives the Coaching Achievement award in 2017 (© AFP / Getty Images)

Vivian Cheruiyot (KEN)

A four-time world champion, Cheruiyot claimed her first title in 2009 when she won the 5000m in Berlin. She retained the crown two years later, achieving a double after her 10,000m success six days earlier, and then completed her set with another 10,000m title in Beijing in 2015.

Gail Devers (USA)

Devers won the first of her five world titles in dramatic style, beating Merlene Ottey by just one thousandth of a second in the 1993 100m final in Stuttgart. She became a double champion four days later, winning the 100m hurdles, and she retained that title in Gothenburg in 1995 before adding 4x100m gold in 1997 and another 100m hurdles title in 1999.

Tirunesh Dibaba (ETH)

In 2005 Dibaba became the first woman to achieve the world 5000m and 10,000m double, two years on from her maiden world title win in the 5000m in Paris. She would go on to claim a further two titles, winning the 10,000m in 2007 and 2013.

Stacy Dragila (USA)

While there were 24 events for men on the inaugural World Championships programme in 1983, there were only 17 for women and the women’s pole vault made its debut in Seville in 1999. Dragila became the first ever world champion in the discipline, clearing 4.60m to equal the world record.

Nawal El Moutawakel (MAR)

When the World Championships launched in 1983, there were no women on the World Athletics Council. After making an impact on the track, becoming the 1984 Olympic 400m hurdles champion, El Moutawakel was one of the first two women (along with Abby Hoffman) elected to the 27-member Council in 1995. Both were re-elected on the Council in 2023.

Sebastian Coe with Anna Riccardi, Nawal El Moutawakel and Sylvia Barlag at the 54th World Athletics Congress

Sebastian Coe with Anna Riccardi, Nawal El Moutawakel and Sylvia Barlag at the 54th World Athletics Congress (© Marton Kovacs)

Susana Feitor (POR)

No other woman has more World Championships appearances to their name. Feitor made her debut in the 10km race walk in Tokyo in 1991 and competed in another 10 championships over the next two decades, ending her campaign with a fourth-place finish in the 20km race walk in Daegu in 2011. She made it on to the podium in 2005, claiming bronze in Helsinki. 

Allyson Felix (USA)

Felix is the most decorated athlete in World Athletics Championships history with 20 medals – 14 of them gold – in the 200m, 400m, 4x100m, 4x400m and mixed 4x400m between 2005 and 2022. Her 200m, 4x100m and 4x400m treble in 2007 was voted the No.5 moment at the World Championships, as decided by fans. She has also blazed a trail off the track, pushing for change as a mother and business founder, and as an advocate for women in sports and Black maternal health.

Lisa Ferdinand (CAN)

When injury ended her competition dreams, Ferdinand took a different path to the pinnacle of athletics. She became an official and has been an international starter at events including the World Athletics Championships. She became the first woman to be nominated to the World Athletics Starters Panel in 2015 and is passionate about having other women follow in her footsteps. Ferdinand will again hold the international starter role at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 23.

Donna Fraser (GBR)

A two-time world 4x400m medallist, Fraser has been a World Athletics gender leadership moderator since 2019. Demonstrating the same drive that helped her to two world medals in her life off the track, she was named Woman of the Year as part of the World Athletics Awards 2022.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (JAM)

In Oregon Fraser-Pryce became the first athlete to win five world titles in a single individual running event, claiming another 100m gold and leading a Jamaican medal sweep. She has so far won a total of 14 world medals, including 10 titles, and her 2013 100m, 200m and 4x100m treble was voted the No.4 moment at the World Championships, as decided by fans.

Shelly Ann Fraser Pryce in the womens 100m Finals at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Moscow 2013

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in the 100m at the World Athletics Championships Moscow 2013 (© Getty Images)

Cathy Freeman (AUS)

Freeman became the first indigenous Australian athlete to win a world athletics title when she secured 400m gold in 1997. The 1996 Olympic silver medallist went on to retain her world title in Seville in 1999 and a year later she added an Olympic title to her haul, getting gold on home soil in Sydney. There, during her victory lap, she carried both the Australian and indigenous flags.

Kimberly Garcia (PER)

Prior to the event in Oregon, Peru had never claimed a World Championships medal. Garcia changed that, winning not only the first medal or title for her country, but getting double gold. First, she won the 20km race walk title, ending China’s more than 10-year win streak in the event, and then she claimed the inaugural 35km race walk title, recording a South American record.

Anju Bobby George (IND)

Since winning world long jump bronze in 2003, George has become a voice for gender equality in her role as Senior Vice President of the Indian Athletics Federation. She has opened a training academy for young girls and was named the 2021 World Athletics Woman of the Year.

Gong Lijiao (CHN)

A seven-time world medallist, Gong first stepped on the podium in 2009 when she secured shot put bronze. She claimed medals of the same colour in 2011 and 2013, before securing silver in 2015, winning her first world gold in London in 2017, retaining her title in Doha in 2019 and then getting another silver in Oregon in 2022 – 13 years after standing on the podium for the first time. Budapest will be her ninth consecutive World Championships.

Gong Lijiao celebrates her second straight shot put victory at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019

Gong Lijiao celebrates her second straight shot put victory at the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 (© Getty Images)

Sifan Hassan (NED)

With two world medals already on her CV – 1500m bronze in 2015 and 5000m bronze in 2017 – Hassan decided to take things up a notch in Doha in 2019. She contested the 1500m and 10,000m and won both, becoming the first woman or man to win such a double at the World Championships. That feat put her in the top 10 in the ‘Greatest World Championships moments’, as voted for by fans.

Abby Hoffman (CAN)

Along with El Moutawakel, Hoffman was one of the first two women elected to the 27-member World Athletics Council in 1995. The former 800m international is also a member of the World Athletics Executive Board and has held a number of administration roles at the World Championships and other major events during her highly successful career.

Dorcus Inzikuru (UGA)

The women’s 3000m steeplechase was another discipline that was not available for women at the first World Championships in 1983. It was 22 years before it made its debut – when the World Championships returned to Helsinki in 2005 – and Inzikuru became the inaugural champion, winning Uganda's first ever world title.

Janeth Jepkosgei (KEN)

Jepkosgei won her world 800m title in 2007. The 39-year-old, who also claimed two world silver medals in 2009 and 2011, is now inspiring others to follow in her footsteps at the World Championships and other major competitions in her role as head coach of the U20 World Athletics Athlete Refugee Team (ART) in Kenya.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee (USA)

Joyner-Kersee went into the 1987 World Championships as the world heptathlon record-holder and she ended it as a two-time world champion. She first won the seven-discipline event, scoring 7128 points to take her first heptathlon title, and then she won the long jump, leaping 7.36m three days later. She went on to win a second long jump gold in Tokyo in 1991 and regain the heptathlon title in Stuttgart in 1993. Her 1987 double was voted among the greatest moments at the World Championships, as decided by fans.

Faith Kipyegon (KEN)

Kipyegon is another athlete who has made huge strides off the track as well as on it. The 29-year-old has won four world 1500m medals – two before the birth of her daughter Alyn in 2018, and two after – and she has shared her journey in motherhood and how it left her more motivated. The 2017 and 2022 world champion is now also a three-time world record-holder.

Faith Kipyegon at the IAAF World Championships London 2017

Faith Kipyegon at the World Championships London 2017 (© Getty Images)

Carolina Kluft (SWE)

A three-time winner at the World Championships, Kluft won the first of her heptathlon titles in 2003, when she set PBs in six of the seven events and became – with her score of 7001 – the third woman to exceed 7000 points. Her third consecutive title in 2007 was won with a European record of 7032, a mark that still places her second on the world all-time list.

Stefka Kostadinova (BUL)

The overwhelming favourite to win the high jump at the 1987 World Championships in Rome, Kostadinova was on the cusp of being handed a surprise defeat, but she cleared 2.04m on her final attempt to stay in the competition. With gold won after her clearance of 2.06m, she then soared over 2.09m to set a world record that still stands today.

Ingrid Kristiansen (NOR)

While the first World Championships was held in 1983, global honours were up for grabs at a forerunner to the championships in 1980, but only in the women’s 400m hurdles and 3000m. Kristiansen was third in that 3000m contest. She didn’t compete on the track at the inaugural championships three years later but she did race in that year’s World Cross Country Championships, finishing 35th. She later found out that she had been four months pregnant at the time. Explaining how important it was for her to continue running after the birth of her son, Gaute, she went on to set world records in the 5000m, 10,000m and marathon, and won the inaugural women’s world 10,000m title in 1987.

Liu Hong (CHN)

Before Garcia gained gold in 2022, the previous five women’s world 20km race walk titles had been won by an athlete from China, and four of them by Liu. That’s a record number of world title wins in the discipline, which made its World Championships debut in Seville in 1999. Not only did former world record-holder Liu win world gold in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2019, she secured silver in 2009 and finished fifth in 2022, while she also claimed the Olympic crown in Rio in 2016.

Tegla Loroupe (KEN)

Loroupe first made strides on the track and road, her achievements including two world 10,000m bronze medals and three world half marathon titles. She then established the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation and has since dedicated her life to harnessing the power of sport to promote peace.

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone (USA)

When it comes to top World Championships moments, McLaughlin-Levrone’s world record-breaking run in Oregon is up there among the greatest – No.3, in fact – as voted by fans of the sport. The 400m hurdler won her first world title in Doha in 2019, when she finished second to her compatriot Dalilah Muhammad who set a world record of 52.16. Since then McLaughlin-Levrone has taken the global mark to 50.68 to win the 2022 world title and she also claimed world 4x400m gold at both championships.

Shaunae Miller-Uibo (BAH)

Miller-Uibo went into the 2022 World Championships with two Olympic titles and three world medals to her name, but no world title. Proving her perseverance, she got that gold in Oregon, clocking 49.11 to win ahead of Marileidy Paulino – nine years on from her fourth-place finish over 200m at the 2013 World Championships while still an U20. Her win in Oregon was voted among the greatest moments at the World Championships, as decided by fans.

Barbara Moser-Mercer (SUI)

Swiss educator Moser-Mercer is the driving force behind the U20 World Athletics Athlete Refugee Team (ART) in Kenya, which boasts 2007 world 800m champion Jepkosgei as head coach. Professor Moser-Mercer was instrumental in integrating her 2019 refugee project with World Athletics’ vision and the U20 ART programme offers athletes a pathway to realising their senior career dreams at the World Championships and other major events.

Barbara Moser-Mercer and Janeth Jepkosgei with World Athletics U20 Athlete Refugee Team athletes

Barbara Moser-Mercer and Janeth Jepkosgei with World Athletics U20 Athlete Refugee Team athletes (© Barbara Moser-Mercer)

Ana Quirot (CUB)

Quirot provided one of the greatest athletics examples of triumph over adversity during her highly successful career. She claimed her first world 800m medal in 1991, securing silver in Tokyo. But two years later she suffered third-degree burns over 38% of her body following a kitchen accident. She was pregnant at the time and gave birth prematurely while fighting for her life, but her daughter did not survive and died a week after she was born. Quirot promised to run again and she went on to win two world titles, getting 800m gold in 1995 and retaining her title two years later.

Brittney Reese (USA)

Winning one world gold medal is an amazing feat but achieving four is something else. That’s exactly what Reese managed between 2009 and 2017 – winning her first title in Berlin with a 7.10m leap, two years after an eighth-place finish in Osaka, and going on to triumph in 2011, 2013 and 2017.

Ximena Restrepo (COL)

Demonstrating the strides the sport has made since the launch of the World Championships, Restrepo – a two-time world finalist in the 400m – was appointed the first female Vice President of World Athletics in 2019 and she was re-elected in that role in 2023. She also made history at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, claiming 400m bronze to become the first Colombian track and field athlete to win an Olympic medal, and the first Colombian woman to win an Olympic medal in any sport.

Yulimar Rojas (VEN)

Rojas has taken the women’s triple jump to another level. The three-time world champion won her most recent global gold medal with a leap of 15.47m – one of the farthest outdoor jumps in history and just 27cm off the world record she set at the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade. Her third world title win in Oregon was voted the No.7 moment at the World Championships, as decided by fans.

Yulimar Rojas celebrates her triple jump win at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22

Yulimar Rojas celebrates her triple jump win at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 (© Getty Images)

Claudia Schneck (BRA)

The only female international technical official in South America, Schneck has officiated at the highest level and describes being part of the World Championships, as well as the Olympic and Paralympic Games, as “the dream of everyone involved in athletics”.

Barbora Spotakova (CZE)

Not only did Spotakova win three world javelin titles in 2007, 2011 and 2017 – more than any other athlete – she has held the world record since 2008, having thrown 72.28m at the World Athletics Final in Stuttgart. She claimed world silver in 2009 and is also a two-time Olympic champion.

Dani Stevens (AUS)

A surprise discus winner at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, Stevens progressed from world U18 champion to U20 winner and then senior gold medallist in the space of four years. At 21 years and 87 days, she became the youngest ever world champion in the discipline.

Grete Waitz (NOR)

Not only did Waitz become the first women’s world marathon champion when she ran 2:28:09 to take the title over 26.2 miles in Helsinki, she also achieved the honour of being the first World Athletics Championships winner in any discipline. A true pioneer in the sport, that world title win was only part of her remarkable running legacy, during a career that included world records, nine New York City Marathon wins, multiple world cross country titles and more.

Anita Wlodarczyk (POL)

A total of 14 women have so far claimed four or more world title wins, and Wlodarczyk is among them. The hammer great gained her first gold in 2009 and repeated the feat in 2013, 2015 and 2017, also finishing fifth in 2011 and winning the last three Olympic titles.

Although this list is by no means exhaustive, it serves to highlight some of the trailblazers in a sport that has developed dramatically during the past 40 years, since the World Championships began.

Find further stories of inspiring women in athletics here.

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