We’ve got a bit of breathing room until the NCAA and World Indoor Championships get rolling next weekend, so I thought I would take another trip down memory lane to past Olympic Games. Looking over at my current poll where the men’s 110 hurdles is clearly winning as the WR most likely to fall this year, made me realize that the hurdles just may have been the most consistently exciting event of the auto timing era.
I’m sure that statement will surprise many of you. After all young fans that have grown up with the Olympics of the last decade have grown up in the age of Mo Greene and Usain Bolt – the two most dominate forces of the last 15 years in perhaps the most visible event in the sport, the 100 meters. However, when talking about exciting events at the Games, I’m looking at the overall competitions, and while the 100 often has the single most exciting personality on the track, the hurdles have had both stellar athletes and fantastic races over the years.
The hurdles have also had much more luck in the injury department over the years. Whereas the 100 meters has repeatedly suffered from having star athletes miss the Games, the hurdles have generally had most of its top stars in attendance when the gun has gone off at the Olympics.
As I’ve said previously, my first real recollection of watching the Games was the Munich Olympics of ’72. By that time I was a full-fledged fan of the sport and Larry Black, Randy Williams, Arnie Robinson, Brian Oldfield, Kathy Hammond, and Madeline Manning were among the athletes that I followed. I had three favorites at the time; Eddie Hart who I spoke of earlier; Steve Williams, who was injured in ’72; and Rod Milburn, as smooth and dominant a hurdler as there has ever been. Heading into Munich Milburn was the WR holder in the event with a 13.0 – defending champion Willie Davenport having the best ever auto time at 13.33, set when he won in Mexico City. They would be joined by Thomas Hill (USA, 13.2) and European Champion Guy Drut (FRA, 13.3) bringing together the finest field ever to date. The final saw Milburn win in a new WR (AT) 13.24, with Drut setting a ER 13.34 in taking silver.
Milburn would be out of the sport by the ’76 Montreal Games, but Drut was still going strong. As a matter of fact Drut was the world’s preeminent hurdler by ’76 as the US was having one of its rare down periods in the event, as Thomas Munkelt (GDR) was the WL heading into Montreal at 13.44 and Cuban Alejandro Casanas was showing promise with a hand timed 13.3. Drut would hold steady however, and won the gold medal with the #2 all-time mark of 13.30 just ahead of Casanas’ 13.33, with “old man” Davenport (’68 gold medalist) taking bronze in 13.38 – the fastest race ever at the time. Just missing out on the stand by inches were James Owens (USA, 13.31) who would move on to play Wide Receiver in the NFL, and Munkelt who equaled his own 13.44.
The ’80 Games in Moscow were marred by the US boycott along with several “Western” nations – boycott that would deny the Games the presence of one Renaldo Nehemiah, who had twice taken down the WR with marks of 13.16 & 13.00. The US would have the top three hurdlers on the clock in ’80 in Nehemiah (13.21), Greg Foster (13.27) and Dedy Cooper (13.34) leaving Moscow with Montreal finalists Alejandro Casanas (CUB) and Frank Munkelt (GDR). The hurdlers gave the fans their money’s worth however with Munkelt (13.39) turning the tables on’76 silver medalist Casanas (13.40) in a photo finish.
By ’84 there were three big happenings in the hurdles. First Nehemiah would become the first man in history to break the 13 second barrier taking the WR down to 12.93 in Zurich in 1981 – to this day only 7 men have ever run faster. Secondly Nehemiah would quit the sport to go play professional football. Third, the Soviet Union would boycott the Los Angeles Games – taking the Eastern Bloc with them. In ’84 however, the loss of the Eastern Bloc did not affect the hurdles as Greg Foster (USA) had taken over as the world’s preeminent hurdler with Nehemiah now gone – their heated rivalry now just a memory. Instead he would have to face up and coming fellow Americans Tonie Campbell (13.23) and Roger Kingdom (13.36). Foster had won the first ever World Championships title the year before; won the Olympic Trials easily; and was an odds on favorite to win in Los Angeles. But a funny thing happens to odds on favorites – sometimes they don’t win. Interestingly Foster (lane 1) and Kingdom (lane 8 ) would bookend the field in the final, and after average starts by the two hurdlers, they would begin to move away from the field and as they hit the line each looked over to see where the other was. Since they were so far apart it was difficult to immediately tell who had won as they hit the line “simultaneously”. The photo finish however would find Kingdom (13.20) upsetting Foster (13.23) for the gold medal. Upset was the word used at the time, however in subsequent meets following the Games, Kingdom would run 13.19, 13.17, and 13.16 to prove his arrival as one of the world’s truly elite hurdlers.
After his “arrival” in ’84, Kingdom would struggle with injury until ’88 – leaving Foster to once again dominate the event, winning another World Championship in ’87, with several other challengers rising up and down during the cycle. By ’88 however, Kingdom looked ready to once again take on Foster, and then irony of ironies Foster broke his arm in two places prior to the Trials. I still remember watching him take to the track in his cast in an attempt to make the team. With 14 screws, 3 plates, and a cast in/on his arm Foster made it through to the semis before having to bow out – perhaps my best memory of Foster as an athlete. Without Foster it was up to Tonie Campbell (USA) and up and comers Mark McCoy (CAN, 13.17) and Colin Jackson (GBR, 13.11) to try to wrest the gold from Kingdom. Kingdom was near his peak however and after becoming the second hurdler to break the 13 second barrier with his 12.97 win in Sestriere – over Jackson and McCoy – he became the first to run under 13.00 in the Games with his 12.98 gold medal run!
As a quick side note, Kingdom would take down Nehemiah’s WR the following year to 12.92, but again injuries – he had several knee operations during his career – would finally take him out of the sport. And once again Foster would take control winning another World title in ’91. That would be Foster’s last hurrah however, and in ’92 Jackson (13.06), McCoy (13.11), and up and coming Tony Dees (USA, 13.08) were the headliners heading into Barcelona. Barcelona was one of the most interesting events I’ve ever seen when it comes to early rounds. In the men’s 200, Mike Marsh (USA) eased up well before the finish and strolled across the line in his semi in the 200 – and finished in 19.73, just missing the WR by .01. In the men’s 400 Quincy Watts (USA) strolled down the final straight in his semi of the 400 and finished in 43.75! And in the opening rounds of the men’s hurdles Colin Jackson eased up and strolled past the finish in his opening heat – and cruised to 13.10! It looked like this race was going to be a romp. But then something happened, as Jackson struggled with his form in his quarterfinal finishing second in only 13.57. Then in his semi he finished second behind McCoy in 13.19 – with the lightning starting McCoy clearly looking to be the better hurdler. Jackson never found his form in the final, finishing seventh in 13.46 as McCoy blazed from the blocks and was never headed in 13.12 with Tony Dees (13.24), Jack Pierce (USA, 13.26), Tony Jarrett (GBR, 13.26), and Florian Schwarthoff (GER, 13.29) crossing the line like the Rockettes in one of the closest finishes in the history of the hurdles at the Games!
Jackson would recover from this loss to win the World Championships the following year in a WR 12.91. The next year (’94) Jackson was clearly the dominant hurdler on the planet, but a little known hurdler by the name of Allen Johnson (USA, 13.25) began to inch his way towards the top. Then in ’95, Roger Kingdom made a comeback to the sport, as Johnson solidified his rise – with Johnson winning the World title in 13.00 and Kingdom taking bronze 13.19 – making the hurdles interesting heading into Atlanta ’96. Schwarthoff, Pierce, Jarrett and Jackson were all back from the Barcelona final. Injuries sent Kingdom to the sidelines for good, but Jack Pierce (12.94) was looking stellar and Mark Crear (USA, 13.05) had joined the fray – as they took first and second at the Trials ahead of Allen Johnson. Pierce never ran in Atlanta, injury taking him out. Then Brit Jarrett went out in round two to a DQ. In the final Allen Johnson was never headed flying to an OR 12.95 ahead of Crear’s 13.09 and Schwarthoff’s 13.19. Unfortunately for Johnson it was the same day as the 19.32 WR 200 by Michael Johnson – leaving him with little notice as there seemed to only be enough room in the headlines for one Johnson!
Between Atlanta and Sydney, Johnson and Colin Jackson would split World Championship wins – Johnson winning in ’97 (12.93), Jackson winning in ’99 (13.04). Sydney would find them both healthy and joined by ’96 finalists Crear and Schwarthoff. This time the new kids on the block would be Terrence Trammell (USA, 13.19) and Anier Garcia (CUB, 13.07). All would be in what was another exciting final. After a fairly even start, the Cuban took control of the race at hurdle three and ran away to victory in 13.00! Once again the finish behind the leader was close for the medals as Trammell (13.16), Crear (13.22), Johnson (13.23), and Jackson (13.28) fought desperately for the medals.
By now, even the youngsters reading this should be aware of the last two Olympic hurdle finals as Liu Xiang (CHN) won in Athens ’04 in a WR equaling 12.91 over Trammell and Garcia. And then Beijing ’08 where Dayron Robles (CUB) took the gold in 12.93 ahead of Americans David Payne (13.17) and David Oliver (13.18).
So perhaps now you can see why I consider this perhaps THE most consistently exciting event at the Games during my lifetime! There has never been a letdown in the competition. It’s an event where returning champions seem to almost always make it back to attempt to defend, as do many finalists from previous Games. The finishes are generally close and stellar winning times are almost always a given – mostly because the WR holder is usually in the race, as well as members of the all-time top 10! If you notice, the previous Games generally have the upcoming champion somewhere among the finalists. And it’s an event that is almost always truly international when it comes both to finalists, medalists, and champions.
That brings us to 2012 where most of the above should be true. The defending champion and current WR holder, Dayron Robles (CUB), should be there. The previous WR holder, #2 all time and 2004 Olympic champion, Liu Xiang (CHN) should also be there. David Oliver (USA), the #3 hurdler all time on the clock will be competing for a spot on the US team. Terrence Trammell (USA), #10 all time, looks to be back in form. And last year’s World Champion, Jason Richardson (USA), should be a factor. We also know that one or two others will emerge as the season progresses – I’m keeping an eye on Orlando Ortega (CUB), Dexter Faulk (USA) and Kevin Craddock (USA).
London should follow tradition and give us one exciting 110 hurdle final. I’ll tell you this summer how I think it will turn out!