Lyudmila Bragina sets pace in 1,500m revolution

Athletics Women

She was not exactly an unknown, for Lyudmila Bragina had competed in two European Championships before and was 29 by the time she competed in Munich. And yet her exploits at the 1972 Olympic Games did shake the sporting world.

In fairness, her track record was good, but not spectacular. At the 1969 European Championships, she finished fourth in the 1500m; two years later, she finished in sixth place.

It was as if she had been preparing for the summer of 1972, for that was the year when things suddenly fell into place for Bragina and in fantastic style too. First came the heat of the Soviet National Championships, when she ran the best 1500m of her career. Indeed, the best of anyone's career up to that point, smashing the world record by a scarcely believable 2.7 seconds. It was the start of an onslaught.

Arriving in Munich, she promptly broke that 1500m record again in the first round of competition, slicing 0.4secs off the record. She broke it again in the semi-final, this time by 1.4 seconds, and it was clear that women's 1500m was in a state of revolution. As Bragina was setting new records, the previous best times began to look historic– during the semi-finals, no fewer than thirteen women bettered the pre-Games world record and everyone knew the final would be the quickest race of the Games.

Those hopes were indeed relaised – Bragina went into the lead after two laps and was never seriously challenged, winning by more than a second. It was, almost inevitably, another huge improvement on the previous World Record.

In the years that followed, Bragina concentrated on running the 3000m, breaking the world record in that event in 1974. But there was no 3000m on the list for the 1976 Olympic Games so she returned to the 1500m distance. The magic, though, had gone – Bragina could finish only fifth in the final, running six seconds slower than she had done four years earlier.