Where have Britain's athletics world-record holders gone?

Ben Bloom
·5 min read
Jonathan Edwards - GETTY
Jonathan Edwards - GETTY

The last man standing. With American Grant Holloway breaking Colin Jackson’s 27-year-old indoor 60 metres hurdles world record on Wednesday night, Jonathan Edwards is now the only British athlete remaining as a world-record holder (in a championship discipline).

Indeed, since Edwards hopped, skipped and jumped his way to a triple jump world record 18.29 metres on August 7, 1995 just two British athletes have achieved feats no other has done before.

Triple jumper Ashia Hansen set an indoor world record in 1998, which lasted six years, and Paula Radcliffe set mixed and women-only marathon world records in 2003 and 2005. Both stood for more than a decade but have since been consigned to history.

Did things use to be better for British athletes?

As Jackson’s mark fell on Wednesday, people might have cast their mind back to previous eras they may recall being dominated by British athletes. There is some element of truth to such an assertion - certainly compared to the current paucity of British world records - but it perhaps does not paint the entire picture.

If ever there was a true “golden period” for British athletics it was during the 1980s when seven different athletes broke 13 outdoor and road world records (in championship disciplines) between them. Driven by the middle-distance rivalry between Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram, Britain truly was the middle-distance powerhouse for much of the decade, with a modern-day high of 16 Olympic athletics medals won in 1984 to follow 10 from 1980.

In the first five years of the 1990s, Steve Backley, Sally Gunnell, Jackson and Edwards then combined to break eight outdoor world records before the drought began.

Indeed, the statistics show a marked drop off in British world-record breakers since the turn of the century:

British world-record breakers by decade (outdoors and road):

1950s: 5

1960s: 6

1970s: 3

1980s: 7

1990s: 4

2000s: 1

2010s: 0

However, when it comes to Olympic medals won during that time, there is very little change outside the dominant decade of the 1980s. Britain won an average of six Olympics medals in the 1950s, eight in the 1960s, 2.5 in the 1970s, 11.3 in the 1980s, six in the 1990s, six in the 2000s and 6.5 in the 2010s.

So where are Britain’s world-record holders?

What is evident from the British rankings is an improvement in depth across almost every event (except perhaps men’s long-distance disciplines) since the 1980s. But that is not translating at the very highest end of the sport to athletes breaking world records.

A look at which nations have produced the most outdoor and road world-record breakers since Edwards’ 1995 leap provides some answers:

World-record breakers since Edwards in 1995 (outdoors and road):

14: Russia

13: Kenya

8: United States

7: Ethiopia

6: China

5: Czech Republic

4: France

3: Jamaica, Morocco, Poland

2: Romania, Cuba

1: Britain, Belarus, Portugal, Uganda, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, South Africa, Qatar, Ecuador, Japan, Australia, Turkey, Bahrain, Ukraine, Germany

The first thing to note is the sheer globalisation of the sport in recent decades. Where the same few nations tend to dominate at the top of medal tables, there are a greater number of nations producing global medal-standard athletes than ever before. Two of the most recent indoor world records (both from triple jump) came from Venezuela and Burkina Faso - two countries with almost no athletics heritage whatsoever.

Greater competition is simply making it much, much harder to claim world records and the pot-luck nature of producing the type of talent to break a world record is shown by the spread of countries above.

There are also simple enough explanations for the countries that have achieved greater success than any other. Of those to have produced more than five world-record breakers over the past 26 years, Russia and China have been blighted by major doping regimes, Kenya and Ethiopia have benefitted from a huge proliferation of a previously untapped running resource, and the United States are the sport’s traditional powerhouse. For any other nation, it seems there is little more than chance.

For Britain to have produced three world-record breakers (Coe, Ovett and Cram) in similar events over the same period is almost certainly a freakish coincidence.

Which British athletes might break a world record in the future?

One of the criticisms levelled at Mo Farah, a four-time Olympic and six-time world champion, is that he never broke a 5,000m or 10,000m world record. That he can call himself a world-record holder is only thanks to the obscure one-hour mark of 21,330 metres he ran last September. Any hope of replicating the feat in a championship event is now beyond him.

Katarina Johnson-Thompson came within a whisker of the indoor pentathlon world record when winning the European title in 2015 and would stand a good chance of bettering it if she tried again, although Jackie Koyner-Kersee’s outdoor heptathlon world record is untouchable.

Elliot Giles is someone few would ever have put in the category of potential world-record breakers at the start of the month but he is now the second-fastest indoor 800m runner of all time so must have sights set on going one better in the future. Perhaps the likes of Giles and youngsters Daniel Rowden or Max Burgin are the best bet to one day come close to David Rudisha’s outdoor mark. It still seems highly unlikely.

Perhaps the likes of Giles and youngsters Daniel Rowden or Max Burgin are the best bet to one day come close to David Rudisha’s outdoor mark. It still seems highly unlikely.

As for anyone else, the prospects are not promising. Dina Asher-Smith has the incomparable Florence Griffith-Joyner to contend with, while a large proportion of women’s world records herald from eras of widespread doping abuse.