Born in Constantine, Boulmerka started running seriously at the age of ten, specializing in the 800 and 1500 metres. She was successful in national and regional races, although there wasn't much competition. Her first major international tournament was the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, where she was eliminated in the preliminary heat of both the 800 and 1500 m.
Boulmerka's performances slowly became better, and her big breakthrough came in 1991. The first major race she won was the 800 m. at the Golden Gala race in Rome, Italy. A month later, she competed at the World Championships. On the last straight of the 1500 m final, she sprinted to victory, becoming the first African woman to win an athletics world title.
Her remarkable performance did not only give her positive attention. She was frequently bothered by Muslim groups in Algeria who thought she showed too much of her body when racing. Boulmerka received death threats and was forced to move to Europe to train. In spite of this, she was one of the favorites for the 1500 m gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. In the final, she fought off Lyudmila Rogachova and current world record holder Qu Yunxia for the gold medal. It was Algeria's first gold medal at the Olympic Games.
She holds the 1500 metres African record of 3:55.30 that was set on August 8, 1992 in Barcelona. She also held the one mile African record of 4:20.79, set in 1991 in Oslo, for 17 years until it was beaten by Gelete Burika of Ethiopia, who timed 4:18.23 in 2008.