Series19 May 2021

Japan's seven wonders: World Championships Tokyo 1991


World Championships Tokyo 1991 (© Getty Images)


We continue the countdown to the Tokyo Olympics by revisiting some of the past major athletics events held in Japan.

Next up is the iconic 1991 World Championships held in Tokyo.

Setting the scene

The third edition of the then quadrennial World Athletics Championships was awarded to Tokyo ahead of Berlin, Los Angeles and Perth by the World Athletics Council at their Rome meeting in March 1987. It was the first time the event had been staged outside of Europe. Held in the same stadium that hosted the 1964 Olympic Games, the event was staged from 23 August to 1 September. Officially opened by Emperor Akihito, the championships featured a little under 1500 competitors from 162 countries. Men competed in 24 events with women fighting for medals in 19 events.

Broken records

Three world records were broken in the course of the championships but perhaps it was the stunning long jump duel between Mike Powell and Carl Lewis which will linger longest in the memory.

Lewis, unbeaten in the long jump for 10 years, launched out to a huge wind-aided 8.83m in round three before bettering this mark with 8.91m in the next round – one centimetre further than the 23-year-old world record mark of Bob Beamon, although marginally over the allowable wind limit for record purposes.

Yet in round five the long-legged Powell responded brilliantly to soar out to a world record effort of 8.95m – a mark which still stands today, some 30 years on. Lewis hit back with 8.87m and 8.84m in the final two rounds – the longest two legal marks of his life – but had to settle for silver.

Lewis had earlier in the championship scalped 0.04 from the world 100m record as he struck gold in 9.86 as the top six men dipped below 10 seconds. Lewis also featured in the triumphant US men’s 4x100m quartet that wiped 0.17 from the world record, clocking 37.50.

Headline acts

Besides the aforementioned Mike Powell and Carl Lewis, their compatriot Michael Johnson announced himself as an athletics superstar by taking his maiden global title, clocking a championship record of 20.01 to strike gold in the men’s 200m.

France’s Marie-Jose Perec was a popular winner of the women’s 400m title. Hassiba Boulmerka of Algeria was a surprise victor in the women’s 1500m, while in the women’s high jump Heike Henkel of Germany soared clear at 2.05m to take gold.

Greg Foster of the US secured a third successive world 110m hurdles crown and Dan O’Brien impressed to take the decathlon in a championship record score of 8812.


Home stars

It was perhaps little surprise given Japan’s rich marathon heritage that the country harvested its greatest successes in the 42.2km event. On the final day of the championships and competing in temperatures of 26C with 73% humidity, Hiromi Taniguchi struck gold in the men’s marathon. The 31-year-old former London Marathon winner made several attempts to break the field before finally making his winning move at 38km.

Earlier in the championships, Sachiko Yamashita won Japan’s first World Championships medal with silver in the women’s marathon. Yamashita tried to break the resistance of Wanda Panfil at 40km, but the Pole would not be denied and kicked clear in the final 1200m to claim gold by a four-second margin in 2:29:53.

Talk of the town

Kenya demonstrated its increasingly strong grip on the global endurance running scene by taking four gold medals in the men’s events. Among them, Billy Konchellah retained his world 800m title in eye-catching style.

China also made an impact by striking gold in the women’s shot and javelin.

The British men’s 4x400m quartet provided a rousing finale to the championships, causing a major upset to defeat the formidable USA team by 0.04.


One of the most significant innovations of the 1991 World Championships was the newly developed chipless uerthane track, which proved hugely popular with sprinters, hurdlers and jumpers – and undoubtedly contributed to the three world records witnessed at the championships.

For the first time, sprinters’ reaction times were revealed to the media. Meanwhile, photo finish images were displayed on a giant jumbotron screen with times (and records) confirmed within seconds.


Regarded as one the finest editions of the World Athletics Championships, the Tokyo event was the last of the quadrennial World Championships before it was converted to a biennial competition from 1993 onwards. The event was the first World Athletics Championships to witness a unified German team and it was also the last in which the USSR made an appearance. Africa enjoyed a successful championships, winning 17 medals, seven of them gold, including Samuel Matete of Zambia winning men’s 400m hurdles gold.

The total attendance of 581,462 surpassed that of the each of previous two World Championships in Helsinki and Rome.

Steve Landells for World Athletics


WATCH: World Championships Tokyo 1991 playlist on YouTube




























World Athletics Steve Landells
訳:World Athletics 大久保マイケル拓磨