Who are the greatest female sprinters of all time? What better time to ask the question than now, after the just-concluded 2020 Tokyo Olympics in which we witnessed historic performances in the women’s sprints?
Individual achievement at the Olympics, World Championships, and sustained peak performance over several years are the main factors used to determine the ten greatest female sprinters of all time.
The list is comprised of four Jamaicans, four Americans, one French, and one Polish.
10. Wyomia Tyus
At nineteen years old, Wyomia Tyus went to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 to participate in the 100m. Her coach Ed Temple told her to use her participation as a learning experience because her best chance of a medal would be at the next Olympics. Tyus had her own idea.
Tyus equalled Wilma Rudolph’s world record in the heats and went on to win the 100m gold. She also won silver medal as a member of the 4x100m relay team..
Tyus established her legacy at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City: By winning the 100m gold, she became the first athlete – male or female – to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the 100m.
Outside of the Olympics, Tyus won eight Amateur Athletic Union titles: three at 100m, two at 200m, and three in 60-yard races.
Wyomia Tyus earns her place among the ten greatest female sprinters.
9. Wilma Rudolph
As a child, Wilma Rudolph survived bouts of polio and scarlet fever and was told she would never walk again. She not only defied the odds but by age twenty she was triple Olympic champion, world record holder, and “the fastest woman in the world.”
At sixteen years old and still in high school, Wilma Rudolph competed in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic games and won a bronze medal in the 4x100m relay.
Four years later, at the Rome Olympics, Wilma Rudolph set world records in the 100m, 200m, and as a member of the women’s 4x100m relay. In so doing, she became the first American track and field athlete to win three gold medals at the same Olympics.
Rudolph was labeled “the fastest woman in the world” and the Italians nicknamed her La Gazella Nera, which means “The Black Gazelle.” Not to be outdone, the French called her “La Perle Noire”, which means “The Black Pearl.”
Rudolph retired from track and field in 1962, at age 22, to complete her university degree and pursue a career in education.
She was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983.
Wilma Rudolph is one of the greatest female sprinters of all time.
8. Gail Devers
American Gail Devers was a sprinter and sprint hurdler, who has left an indelible mark on female sprinting.
Devers, a triple Olympic gold medalist, won the 100m at the Barcelona Games in 1992, and became the second female, after her compatriot Wyomia Tyus in 1968, to retain the 100m title, when she did so in 1996 at the Atlanta Games. Devers, as a member of the 4x400m relay team, won a second gold medal in Atlanta.
Devers won five gold medals and three silver at the World Championships spanning the ten-year period 1991 to 2001. Three of her gold medals came from the 100m hurdles (1993, 1995, 1999), one from the 100m (1993), and one from the 4x100m relay in 1997.
She was also prolific at the World Indoor Championships, winning four gold and one silver medals. Three of her gold medals were won in the 60m and one in the 60m hurdles.
Gail Devers was inducted in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2011 and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 2012.
Gail Devers is undoubtedly one of the greatest female sprinters of all time.
7. Marie-José Pérec
Marie-José Pérec, arguably the greatest French female sprinter of all time, earns her place amongst the world’s best. Though she specialized in the 200m and 400m, she has respectable times in the 100m and 400m hurdles.
During her career, Pérec won three individual Olympic gold medals. She won her first gold medal in the 400m in Barcelona (1992). She achieved immortality in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, where she won gold in both the 200m and 400m, a feat accomplished only by one other female, Valerie Briscoe-Hooks at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Pérec’s time of 48.25 seconds for the 400m at the Atlanta Olympics, which still stands as the Olympic record, ranked her as the third fastest woman of all time for twenty-three years.
It was not until the 2019 World Championship in Doha before Salwa Eid Naser, who clocked 48.14 seconds, surpassed Pérec’s mark, pushing her to number 4 of all time.
Pérec’s World Championship campaign saw her winning the 400m gold in Tokyo (1991) and again in Gothenburg in 1995.
Marie-José Pérec won gold at the European Championship in Helsinki in 1994 in the individual 400m and was a member of the French Team that won gold in the women’s 4x400m relay.
Pérec’s best times, all wind legal, are 10.96 over the 100m, 21.99 over 200m, 48.25 over 400m, and 53.21 over the 400m hurdles. Her time in the hurdles would have placed her fifth in the jaw-dropping women’s 400m hurdles final at the recently concluded games in Tokyo.
In October 2013, Pérec was awarded the Officier de la Légion d’honneur by French President François Hollande, who described her as “one of the most brilliant athletes in the history of French athletics”.
Pérec was inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame on November 16, 2013.
Perec has earned her placed amongst the greatest female sprinters.
6. Merlene Ottey
Jamaican-born Merlene Joyce Ottey’s track career began in 1978 and lasted for thirty-four years until 2012. She represented Jamaica for the first twenty-four years and Slovenia for the last ten years.
During her long and illustrious career, Ottey participated in seven Olympic Games, the most by any track and field athlete.
She has nine (9) Olympic medals, fourteen (14) World Championships (outdoors) medals, and seven (7) World Championships (indoors) medals: A grand collection of thirty (30) medals.
Ottey is ranked fourth on the all-time list for 60 metres (indoor), eighth on the all-time list for 100 metres (10.74) and sixth on the all-time list for the 200 metres outdoors (21.64). She is the current world indoor record holder for 200 metres with 21.87 seconds, set in 1993.
Ottey, called the “Queen of the Track” because of her career achievements and longevity, is regarded generally as one of the greatest female sprinters of all time.
5. Veronica Campbell-Brown
Veronica Campbell-Brown is arguably the most decorated female track and field athlete in international and regional competitions encompassing both junior and senior careers.
Campbell-Brown won forty-nine international medals over her illustrious career, which spanned more than two decades.
As a junior, she accumulated fourteen gold medals, two silver, and one bronze.
As an Olympian, VCB, as she is known affectionally, won three gold medals: one each for victories in the 200m in Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008). She also won gold as a member of the 4x100m relay team in Athens.
VCB’s Olympic silver medals came from the 4x100m relays at the Games in Sydney (2000), London (2012), and Rio (2016).
She has Olympic bronze medals for the 100m at the Athens and London Games.
VCB has eleven medals from five World Championships spanning 2005 to 2015. Three of the eleven medals are gold, seven are silver, and one is bronze.
She also has two golds medals for 60m from the World Indoor Championships at Doha (2010) and Istanbul (2012)
VCB has one gold and four silver medals from the Commonwealth Games.
Following her successful campaign in 2008 during which she successfully defended her Olympic 200m title, Track and Field News named Campbell-Brown as the top 200m runner in the world as well as the fourth best in the 100m.
Campbell-Brown’s 10.76 seconds in the 100m in Mestský Stadion, Ostrava, on May 31, 2011, ranks her 11th all time. Her 21.74 seconds for the 200m in Beijing 2008, ranks her 12th all time.
Veronica Campbell-Brown’s success at all levels of international competitions, the length of her career, and her body of work earns her a place among the ten greatest female sprinters of all time.
4. Florence Griffith Joyner
Legendary American sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner, nicknamed Flo Jo, is regarded widely as the greatest female sprinter of all time. If that is debatable, what is not is that she is the fastest woman ever.
In 1987, the year prior to her breakout in 1988, Flo Jo won gold and silver in the 4x100m relay and 200m events, respectively, at the World Championships in Rome. Her time in the 200m was 21.96.
In the quarter finals of the 100m, at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1988, Flo Jo ran 10.49 seconds, a new world record by a margin of 0.27s over the previous record held by Evelyn Ashford. She followed up the 10.49 with 10.70 in the semi-final, and 10.61 in the final.
To this day, the 10.49 seconds has remained a source of controversy because the official wind reading was considered ‘highly suspect’ by those who witnessed the race.
The September 1988 issue of Track & Field News had a column titled “Everyone Knows it’s Windy”, which included the comment: ” It’s hard to say which number caused the bigger gasp at the Trials, Florence Griffith Joyner’s 10.49 at the finish-line time indicator, or the 0.0 which popped up on the mid-straight wind board”.
At the same Olympic trials, Flo Jo also set an American record in the 200m with a time of 21.77 seconds.
At the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988, Flo Jo won gold medals in the 100m and 200m, registering unimaginable times of 10.62 seconds for the former and 21.34 seconds for the latter event. She also won gold and silver medals as a member of the 4x100m and 4x400m relays, respectively.
There can be no serious conversation regarding the top 10 greatest female sprinters of all time without the inclusion of Florence Griffith Joyner.
3. Irena Szewinska
Polish sprinter, Irena Szewinska, participated in five Olympic Games between 1964 and 1980, winning seven medals, three of which were gold, two silver, and two bronze.
Regarded as one of the most versatile athletes, Szewinska is the only athlete – male or female – to have held world records in the 100m, 200m, and 400m events.
Overall, she broke six world records during her career, setting thirty-eight records in distances ranging from 100m to 400m, and in the long jump.
In 1974, Szewinska was the first female athlete to break the 50-second barrier in the 400m. In the same season, she set a new world record of 22.21 seconds for the 200 metres.
in 1974, Szewinska was ranked number 1 in the world in the 100m, 200m and 400m events.
She held twenty-six national titles and won ten medals in European Championships.
Irena Szewinska’s achievements qualifies her, incontrovertibly, as one of the ten greatest female sprinters of all time.
2. Elaine Thompson-Herah
Elaine Thompson-Herah burst onto the international track and field scene in 2015, winning silver in the 200m at the World Championships in Beijing, China. Her time of 21.66 seconds, her personal best then, ranked her fifth fastest of all time over the distance.
In 2016, at the Rio Olympics, Thompson-Herah won gold in the 100m and 200m, making her the first woman after Florence Griffith Joyner in Seoul 1988, to win the sprint double at the Olympics.
Plagued by nagging Achilles tendon injuries, Thompson-Herah failed to medal at the 2017 and 2019 World Championships, placing her mettle and future under intense scrutiny.
At the recently concluded Olympic Games in Tokyo, Elaine Thopmson-Herah became the first female, and only the second person behind her illustrious compatriot, Usain Bolt, to win back-to-back sprint doubles at the Olympics.
Her winning time of 10.61 seconds in the 100m final broke the Olympic record of 10.62 seconds set by Florence Griffith Joyner in 1988.
Her winning time of 21.53 seconds in the 200m final, surpassed only by Florence Griffith Joyner’s world and Olympic record of 21.32 seconds, makes her the fastest woman alive in the event and the second fastest woman of all time.
Elaine Thompson-Herah’s performance at Tokyo 2020 has placed herself firmly in any conversation on the ten greatest female sprinters of all time.
1. Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce
No other woman has dominated female sprinting as Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce has done over the past thirteen years. Such is her dominance and achievements that, prior to the Tokyo Olympic Games, she was regarded, universally, as the greatest female sprinter of all time.
Fraser-Pryce has won a total of eight Olympic medals: three gold, four silver and one bronze and eleven world championships medals, comprising an astonishing nine gold and two silver medals. She is also a four-time Diamond League champion: 100m winner in 2012, 2013, and 2015; and 200m winner in 2013.
Given her body of work, accomplishments, and longevity, Shelly-Ann Fraser rightfully earns her place in the pole position among the greatest female sprinters ever.
Marita Koch, who represented East Germany, was one of the most versatile, formidable, and dominant female sprinters of her time.
50m – 6.11 seconds (national record)
60m – 7.04 seconds (national record)
100m – 10.83 seconds
200m – 21.71 seconds (national record)
400m – 47.60 seconds (world record)
Her world record of 47.60 seconds for the 400m still stands.
Koch has one Olympic gold medal, which she won at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games in the 400 m. She earned a silver medal as part of the 4×400 m relay team at the same Games.
She has three gold medals and one silver medal from the 1983 World Championships in Helsinki. Her two individual medals were gold and silver in the 200 m and 100 m, respectively.
Koch mined six gold medals from the European Championships of 1978, 1982, and 1986. In each of those Championships, she earned gold medals in both the 400 m and 4×400 m relays.
Koch’s achievements, along with those of many other East German female athletes, have long been under suspicion that they were achieved with the aid of performance-enhancing drugs, which were and remain illegal, but were not detectable at the time.
German anti-drug activists Brigitte Berendonk and Werner Franke, were able to save several doctoral theses and other documents written by scientists working for the East German drug research programme. The documents name Koch as one of the athletes who used anabolic steroid from 1981 to 1984.
Widespread suspicion and eventual evidence suggest that Koch most likely used performance enhancing drugs and therefore not included amongst the greatest female sprinters of all time.
Legions of supporters and admirers of Allison Felix will argue that Felix, the most decorated Olympian, has done more than enough to be ranked as one of the top female sprinters of all time. There is no denying that, but is she among the ten greatest female sprinters?
Felix has amassed 40 medals across various international meets. Twenty-one of those medals have been attained from relays.
Felix has won seven gold medals, with only one, the 200m in London 2012, coming from an individual event.
Her three Olympic silver medals were won in the 200m in the Games of 2004, 2008, and 2016.
Her only bronze was won in the 400m at Tokyo 2020.
Felix won eighteen medals in World Championships during her stellar career: thirteen gold, three silver, and two bronze. Her thirteen gold medals comprised of nine for relays.
As is clear, Felix was not a dominant individual performer, though she has a best time of 21.69 seconds, which ranks her seventh on the all-time list.
Felix has a respectable body of work but does not rank among the ten greatest female sprinters.
Disgraced American sprinter Marion Jones was one of the most dominant female sprinters and certainly would have made the list of the greatest female sprinters had it not been for her involvement in the BALCO doping scandal.
Jones confessed to taking performance enhancing drugs and was found guilty for lying to a grand jury about her involvement in the BALCO doping scandal. She was stripped of several of her medals and imprisoned.
Carmelita Jeter was one of the most exciting female sprinters to grace the track. For twelve years (2009 to 2021) she held the title “fastest woman alive”, a title she earned after clocking 10.64 seconds in the 100m at a meet in Shanghai, China in September 2009.
Jeter has three medals from the 2012 London Olympics: gold in the 4x100m relay, silver in the 100m, and bronze in the 200m.
Her three gold medals in World Championships includes one individual gold in the 100m in Daegu.
She also has one silver and three bronze medals from her World Championships campaign.
Unfortunately, Jeter’s body of work and individual accomplishments at the Olympics and World Championships cannot place her among the ten greatest female sprinters of all time.