Zürich, SwitzerlandIn recent years many historic temples dedicated to athletics past and present, in particular Oslo’s Bislett and Berlin’s Olympic stadium have either been completely re-built or entirely refurbished. The latest to under-go change is Zürich’s Letzigrund stadium, the site of 24 World records.
The Letzigrund truly holds a mythical stature in the history of our sport with more than 250 national records to set alongside the global record tally.
One of the several magical evenings that Letzigrund has given the athletics world came on 13 August 1997 when three World records fell in the course a few hours: Wilson Kipketer's 1:41.24 in the 800 metres, Haile Gebrselassie's 12:41.86 over 5000 metres, and Wilson Boit Kipketer's 7:59.08 in the 3000m Steeplechase.
This Friday a new stadium built just metres from the site of its predecessor, which was demolished last autumn, will be put through its paces by the world’s elite.
Last year’s IAAF Golden League meeting - Weltklasse Zürich - marked the closing of the last chapter in the old venue’s illustrious history in fine style thanks to the 9.77 World 100m record equalling run of Asafa Powell, and this year’s edition on Friday 7 September will celebrate its re-birth after a concentrated construction schedule has fashioned a state of the art facility to take Athletics in the city into the future.
IAAF Editorial Manager
We are now pleased to re-print a story we first published in 2005:
A step back through the history of Weltklasse Zürich
The Weltklasse Zürich often unofficially dubbed the ‘World Championships or Olympic Games in one evening’ has witnessed plenty of World records and memorable battles all fought out in front of a loud, passionate and enthusiastic capacity crowd in the Letzigrund stadium.
We now take a look back through some highlights from its illustrious history…
In the beginning…
The German Martin Lauer opened the World record era in Zürich setting two World marks in one evening on 7 July 1959, first in the 110 metres Hurdles with 13.2 and then over the 200 metres hurdles with 22.5 (both hand timing). One year later it was the turn of his more famous compatriot Armin Hary who became the first man in history to run the 100 metres in 10 seconds (hand timing), not only once but twice in the same evening just a few weeks before his Olympic gold medal in Rome. Hary ran 10 seconds but the result was annulled because of his false start. The race was repeated 35 minutes later and Hary ran the first official 10 seconds World record in history.
Sprint Hurdles, a crowd favourite
The first US star to set a World record in the big Swiss meeting was the 110m Hurdler Willie Davenport who tied the World record with 13.2 (hand timing), one year after his Olympic gold medal in Mexico City 1968.
The 110m Hurdles sprint was in the spotlight again in 1973 when the reigning Olympic champion Rod Milburn from the US broke the World record with 13.1. The sprint hurdles race has become one of the most popular disciplines in the Letzigrund meeting where two more records have been set. The USA’s Renaldo Nehemiah was the first man to smash the 13 seconds barrier with 12.93 in 1981 in a memorable athletics night, when a World record was also set by the British middle distance legend Sebastian Coe who ran the Mile in 3:48.53.
Nehemiah's World record resisted all assaults until two-time Olympic champion Roger Kingdom sliced one hundredth of a second off Nehemiah's record with 12.92 in Zürich 1989, a result which still stands as a USA record (NOTE: in 2006 improved by Dominique Arnold, 12.90).
Barriers broken, new eras begun
Many of the World records set in Zürich have marked an important step in the history of athletics. One of them is the Soviet Faina Melnik's first throw in the history of the women’s Discus over the 70m barrier with 70.25. In the same 1975 edition, the 800m also grabbed the headlines thanks to the Kenyan Mike Boit who narrowly missed the World record running in 1:43.79 (the hand timing World record was 1:43.7 set by the Italian Marcello Fiasconaro in 1973).
Boit, who missed the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal due to the boycott by many African nations, won again in 1976 in 1:43.90 in Zürich. The much-awaited clash between Boit and the 400 and 800 metres Olympic champion Alberto Juantorena happened in 1977. It was the Cuban "El Caballo" who took the win in a memorable battle against the Kenyan in 1:43.64 on the Letzigrund track.
Sebastian Coe, who we have already mentioned, set the first of his two World records in Zürich in 1979 when he broke Filbert Bayi's 1500m mark with 3:32.03.
Shortly after the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, Olympic champion Tatyana Kazankina from the Soviet Union ran the women’s 1500m World record with 3:52.47, which remained unbeaten until 1993, when the Chinese Qu Yunxia astonished the athletics world with an amazing 3:50.46 in Bejing, China.
Then USA’s Mary Slaney Decker took the Mile World record with 4:16.71 in 1985, while Zürich provided a second women’s Mile record eleven years later thanks to Russia's Svetlana Masterkova, who ran the current record of 4:12.56 two weeks after her Olympic 800 -1500 metres double in Atlanta 1996.
Zürich was also one of the favourite tracks for Kenyan Moses Kiptanui who broke two World 3000m Steeplechase records with 8:02.08 in 1992 and 7:59.13 in 1995.
Gebrselassie’s Zurich legacy
The "Emperor" Haile Gebrselassie and Kenya’s Daniel Komen thrilled the Letzigrund fans with unforgettable 5000 metres battles which have become part of middle distance history. The Ethiopian legend took 11 seconds off the previous (Moses Kiptanui's) World record with 12:44.39 in 1995, some days after his second 10,000 metres World title in Gothenburg. The 1995 meeting was also highlighted by Michael Johnson’s 43.88 in the 400 metres and Nourredine Morceli’s 3:45.19 in the mile.
Gebrselassie suffered one of his rare defeats in 1996 a few days after his successful Olympic campaign in Atlanta where he won his first Olympic gold in the 10,000 metres. The Ethiopian returned from Atlanta with an injury and had to content with second place over 5000m in Zürich behind the emerging Daniel Komen who took the honours in 12:45.09.
Three World records in 1997
The memorable 1997 edition featured the 5000 metres rematch between Gebrselassie and Komen. The former ran one of his greatest races in a World record of 12:41.86. In a thrilling encounter Komen was runner-up with 12:44.90. Dieter Baumann set the European record with 12:54.70. One week later Komen improved the World record in Brussels (12:39.74).
Two more World records were set in an eventful 1997 meeting. Danish star Wilson Kipketer smashed Sebastian Coe's long standing World record with 1:41.24 in 800 metres. Wilson Boit Kipketer from Kenya set the third World record of that fabulous evening running the 3000 metres steeplechase in 7:59.08.
Winning streaks for El Guerrouj and Mutola
Hicham El Guerrouj and Maria Mutola have also made history at this meeting with their long winning streaks at the Letzigrung. Mozambique’s Mutola won 12 times in Zürich between 1993 and 2004 and set the African record of 1:55.19 in 1994. Moreover, she took a crucial Golden League win in 2003 when she became the only athlete to win the million dollar Jackpot. Second behind Mutola in the special ranking of athletes who achieved more victories in the Letzigrund is the Polish legend Irena Szewinska who took nine wins between 1966 and 1978.
El Guerrouj won seven times in Zürich between 1996 and 2003 with a meeting record of 3:26.45 set in 1998. The Moroccan star's winning streak in Zürich came to an end last year when the now former Kenyan Bernard Lagat (USA) took a very narrow win in 3:27.40 to El Guerrouj's 3:27.64.
Bucher brings the home crowd to its feet
Talking about middle distance races you cannot forget the two wins of local hero André Bucher (2001 World champion) who won in 2000 (1:43.72) and 2001 (1:42:55 setting the national record) in front of his enthusiastic supporters. Shot Put star Werner Günther, the three time Swiss World champion, was also another man who kept the local support happy throughout the late 1980s.
Flat sprint highlights
The magical Letzigrund track has a strong reputation as one of the fastest in the world with many historic records. In 1984, USA's Evelyn Ashford ran a new World record of 10.76 beating 1983 World champion Marlies Göhr from East Germany, some weeks after her Olympic 100 metres title in Los Angeles.
USA’s Harry Butch Reynolds stripped Lee Evans of his legendary 20-year-old World record set in Mexico City (43.68) with 43.29 in 1988. In the same year "King" Carl Lewis 9.93 won the 100m, and later in 1991 anchored the 4x100 US team to a World record of 37.67 in 1991. The team was made up of Mike Marsh, Leroy Burrell and Dennis Mitchell along with Lewis.
Merlene Ottey and Marion Jones boast two of the longest winning streaks in the sprints at the Letzigrung. Former Jamaican Ottey (now a Slovenian citizen) won eight times between 1983 and 1997 with a memorable 100 -200 metres double in 1990 (10.93 and 21.66). USA star Jones took a total of eight wins between the 100 metres (10.77 in 1998), the 200 metres (21.76 in 1997), and the Long Jump (she leapt 7.31 in 1998).
More recently the Zürich meeting, which was one of the founding meets of the prestigious IAAF Golden League circuit (since 1998), was highlighted by the feats of two other Golden League Jackpot winners. Dominican Republic’s Felix Sanchez is a four times winner in the 400m Hurdles, with a Central American record of 47.35 set in 2002 which stands second in the Letzigrund “all-time list” behind Zambia’s Samuel Matete who ran 47.10 in 1991. The other Jackpot standout is Mexico’s Ana Guevara (winner in the women’s 400 metres in 2002 with 49.16 and in 2003 with 49.11).
A rainstorm marred all but the very start of the 2005 meeting but in 2006 the old stadium was sent out on the highest of notes as it witnessed Asafa Powell’s third career run of 9.77 seconds, with it the meeting achieved yet another World record. The perfect swan-song for the old stadium.
Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF