Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken's
Interviews and
Reports

David Hemery (1968 and 75, Updated October 2011)

I knew David from the time he became an international senior to the end of his hurdling career.
My first interview with him appeared in 'Athletics Arena' magazine just before the 1968 Olympics, when well known South of England coach Charlie Elliott published and edited the material and after David Hemery's Olympic victory in Mexico City..
Charlie, who was an inspiration to a lot of runners, like international 800m man Pete Browne, died at 78 on 28/12/2010.
   In the Pre-Mexico edition Charlie Elliott put Hemery on the front cover of Athletics Arena with my interview as the lead story inside. Regarding the future Olympic hurdles final in Mexico Charlie Elliott wrote' Well, I think along the same lines as Editor Charles Elliott, if he is capable of doing it, then he will...and he's certainly capable of it."
   However it was a bit of a bold pronouncement, at the time, because  three Americans headed the list of the World's fastest times, Geoff Vanderstock 48.8 (49.6 he did at sea level); Boyd Gittins 49.1 and Ron Whitney 49.2 with Hemery on 49.6 and 1966 European Champion Roberto Frinolli of Italy on 49.7.Australian Gary Knoke was next on 49.8.
   The end result, with lane draw, in the Final in Mexico City, on the 15th of October was 1 David Hemery (6) 48.1; World Record, 2 Gerhard Hennige (WG) (2) 49.0, 3 John Sherwood (GB), Commonwealth Champion 1970 49.0 (8); 4 Geoff Vanderstock (3) 49.0; 5 European Champion of 1969 Vyacheslav Skomorokhove (SU) (3) 49.1; 6 Ron Whitney (7) 49.2; 7 Rainer Schubert (WG) (1) 49.2; 8 Roberto Frinolli (4) 50.1.
Now for part of the interview in Mexico City after the Final, edited strongly by Charlie Elliott.
  David Hemery:- " I aimed for 24.2 for the 200metre mark in the heat, which is fairly slow a pace for a 13 stride pattern, and managed to hit that time spot-on. From there to the last hurdle I just coasted, hoping that I would be far enough ahead to maintain an easy rhythm to the finish; I had let Frinolli go, but then at the last hurdle I looked to my right and saw four men there. As it was four to qualify for the next round I had to run really hard for the last fifty metres to just get through. This was the only real effort I made at any stage during the heat, since I was  aiming to qualify in the slowest time necessary (Frinolli 49.9, Hemery 2nd in 50.3).
    Now the semi final heat was a tougher race, and I asked Hemery if he found this to be so.
   ' Naturally I went into the race knowing that one would not be able to coast round. I had Hennige in lane 7 and Whitney in lane 8 outside me, and I suppose it was really the American of whom I was particularly wary. Even so, I knew I could not discount Hennige especially in view of several 'good series' of three races in particular where he ran a 400m hurdles on the first day, a flat 400m the next, clocking 46.6, and then on the third day beat Andy Todd in 50.1 over the 400 hurdles. Apart from that he is powerfully built and extremely strong.'
   Dave took third place in the semi-final behind Hennige (49.1) and Whitney (49.2) and clocked 49.3.and I asked him to describe the race as he saw it ' Whitney went out very fast  from the blocks with Hennige holding him well into the back straight. I aimed at a faster pace than in my first round heat, 23.5 for the first 200--and again reached the half-way mark exactly on time, holding strictly to this pace and maintaining an even rhythm. At that point I was with Hennige and Whitney and stuck to them round the bend and into the home straight. At the ninth hurdle I kept my eyes and my ears open for anyone else likely to challenge from the left, Mainly Skomorokhov and Knoke, just to make sure I was not caught napping again. I was surprised that Knoke did not qualify, but then in the final Skomorokhov ran very well and proved his worth. It seemed incredible that Knoke clocked 49.6 in this race and yet did not qualify, since this was a time that would have won him the gold medal in Tokyo. Between Skomorokhov and Knoke however, there could not have been  much more than a vest, since the both recorded the same time.'
   I  like everyone else, wondered just how much the altitude was an advantage to the one-lap hurdler, and asked David to give his opinion " I think that altitude such as in Mexico can give half-a second advantage over a sae-level environment, once an athlete has acclimatised. But without that very necessary period of acclimatisation--which differs from one individual to another--it could obviously have a disadvantageous effect.'
   The final was one of the very few really outstanding track events of the Games, to my mind, more so for the people who wrote for Athletics Arena. The description that we can give to the race from our vantage point in the stands must differ considerably from that of one of the competitor and here David Hemery himself gives us the step-by-step inside story from lane seven:- " The surprise for me began as soon as the starter fired his gun. Whitney went off his blocks and into the bend very slowly, or so it seemed, and kept to the pace into the back straight. I was afterwards told that he looked completely demoralised by the speed with which I went passed him, but it was not really that I was going that fast, it was rather that he was running at a much slower pace for the first 150 metres. He was probably running to a time-schedule, since Chris Brasher had told me earlier that when timing Whitney at Lake Tahoe, the watch revealed that he was running almost even-paced throughout his race so that he would not tire in the latter stages. This seemed to be his plan in the Mexico final'
   John Sherwood in the outside lane set a fast pace, and was obviously a good guide for Dave right round to the 250 metre point, where Hemery went past him. Sherwood was stationed in lane eight, Whitney in lane seven. As far as, running the race was concerned Dave seemed to be virtually isolated from the rest of the field. ' My time at the half way mark was 23.0 whilst Whitney was probably 23.6-7 which would have given me that six-metre advantage which I had at that stage. I might have been a bit faster if it had been a warmer day and the track had been dry. I was under control the whole way round, almost but had absolutely no idea where the rest of the field were after the middle of the final bend. I ran very hard from start to finish, and used 13 strides to the sixth hurdle then 15 strides over the last four. This was different to what I usually had done; on all previous occasions in 1968 I had maintained a 13 stride pattern to the fifth only. Again, if conditions in Mexico had been better on the actual day I now know that I might have reached the seventh hurdle with 13 strides. As for the time, I must admit that I was a little surprised, although I knew it was a fast one. The only part of the race that I would criticise myself for is the last 50meteres. I tried to get into a sprint but could not, and was waiting for the crowd reaction to hear if they were gasping or roaring, as if someone was closing up on me. I just heard a continuous great roar so had to push harder and harder to make sure that I was not pipped on the post. As I crossed that white line, and even as I approached it, I had that most peculiar feeling in the pit of my stomach; I had won, I had won!. I turned round on the track, my eyes focussed on the electronic timer in the centre--48.1. I was so elated I thought that I would float away, I'll never forget that emotional moment as long as I live. It lasted for hours."
   JOHN SHERWOOD who was third talking to me in 1970:-
My question was- Do you think your time of 49.0 at Mexico was slightly unrealistic and that  it made it difficult for you to get on terms with such a time again?

   " I think so. I would think 49.5 was about what I was running at sea level. I should be able to do that now but 49.0 is going to take some catching really. The problem is I can't  run the stride pattern I used in Mexico anywhere else because conditions don't really allow that."
       His Final in Mexico
" I decided to go off faster than I had done. Whitney was very strong in the finishing straight.so I had to get as far away from him as possible. I went fairly fast over the first six in 13 strides which I had never done before, then cut down to 14's  for the next two hurdles. I got down to 15's to take them on the good leg and I had no idea where I was placed. When someone asked me after the race where I was , I said 3rd, 4th or 5th. I had no idea I was so near to 2nd.  I could not tell where I was but I was very pleased with 3rd."
                  David Hemery's  first Interest in the sport
        I remember how David first feelings about hurdling from going over the breakwaters at Frinton in England.
His Father  Peter, was the first to start him and  his brother John off on the athletics trail, running around the back garden at home in Frinton, Essex.
   " The back garden was about 100 yards round" he recalls, " My Father used to get us running around regularly, and even set-up starting blocks on the lawn, and taught us the fundamentals of correct starting. I think that this was my first feeling of the competitive spirit that is so much a part of athletics. My first recollection of any actual racing was at the age of ten at school in Frinton, when I did the 80 yards hurdles. At the age of 12 I went to Boston USA.. I found  there that I kept on winning, and progressing, and being statistically minded I always kept a record of my performances, and compared then each year."
   One must remember there were two coaches whose advice was invaluable to David Hemery in the years to come and at University in America. One was Billy Smith in the USA for conditioning and in England Fred Housden who helped him with his technical work and they often spoke together which was a great asset.
             There were three high hurdles Championships that are of great note where David Hemery did very well in and here is the result of the first three in each of those
   1966 British Empire & Commonwealth Games Kingston Jamaica
120 yards Hurdles 1 David Hemery (Eng)  14.2;  2 Mike Parker (Eng) 14.2; 3 Ghulam Raziq (PAK) 14.3
   1969 European Games in Athens 110m hurdles
1 Eddy Ottoz (Italy) 13.5, 2 David Hemery (GB) 13.7, and 3 Alan Pascoe (GB-The European Champion 400h in '74)
13.9.
    1970 Commonwealth Games Edinburgh Scotland 110 hurdes
 1 David Hemery 13.66, 2 Mal Baird (Australia) 13.86, 3 Godfrey Murray (JAM) 14.02
   
       Then there was the Olympic Games 400m hurdles final in Munich in 1972 and David Hemery was also a 'Star'  coming back to the event again after a break from one lap hurdling. The first four in the Final in Munich in 1972 were :- 1 John Akii-Bua (Uganda) , 2 Ralph Mann (USA) 48.51; 3 David Hemery (GB) 48.52; 4 Jim Seymoure (USA) 48.64.
  To JOHN AKII-BUA. You were drawn in lane one and therefore had the disadvantage of having to run wide of the curb (It was Akii-Bua, Gavrelenko, Zorin, Seymoure, Hemery, Schubert and Tziortzis)
 " In both heat and semi-final I had been drawn in lane 2 and was sure I would be in one of the outer lanes in the final, so it came as a surprise to be given lane 1. 'At least I thought, 'I will be able to watch them and see when they make their moves we had all run about the same time, but I guess I was the fastest flat 400 metre runner. 'They won't be all that far up on me at the half way mark, I thought. 'Maybe two or three strides' so I felt quite confident of my chances. I had to concentrate on running my own race in the inside lane. If I lost concentration for a split second then it would all go wrong. But I had to check my positions when I got the fourth hurdle. If I looked before then, say at the bend, then I would surely lose concentration. At touch down at the fourth hurdle I took that quick look: Hemery was a few inches ahead at touch down. Right. Now to push the pace a bit more so that I can change to 14 strides (from 13) at the fifth. But why not go on to the sixth with 13.'s? If I took the fifth close enough I could go on to the sixth - all this was going through my mind as I raced- but...I got excited right in the middle, thinking of going faster now! I did not panic. I cut down from 13 to 14-strides at the fifth, really fast-and that's where I knew Hemery had got the gold; at least, I thought he had got the gold because, he moved from fifth to the sixth hurdle really fast, just like a bird.
I watched him go. He pulled me out of my race, and from that split-second I just raced, forgetting my concentration. I raced to try and catch him if I could'
   'Ralph Mann had been caught at the fifth hurdle by Hemery, and passed. Because I had changed my stride pattern front the fifth Hemery seemed to be building up speed from the next hurdle. 'He's  broken away. He's gone for the finish I thought, so I have got to go too. Over the eighth hurdle we were level and my legs were moving faster than his, so I kept going, hitting the straight very fast. I wanted to take the tenth hurdle with my right leg and that is what happened. My strides from the ninth to the  tenth felt very comfortable. I did not feel I was struggling. I let my body leaning towards the tape- and through. I felt exhiler. I laughed.  I'd WON"
MALCOLM ARNOLD HIS COACH " You see I think that no one can  have done more endurance work as a build up than John. All the hard background work enabled him to produce the powerful run in from the eighth hurdle, and this was the difference between them"
           DAVID HEMERY IN 1975 (In my AW interview with him) about the race and Akii coming through surprisingly strongly in that final!
   " I think it surprised everybody, and probably Akii himself! That was another factor--I went too fast too soon in Munich between hurdles two and three which was at the beginning of the back straight.     I accelerated extremely hard and I paid for it when I came into the hone straight. I was running flat out and I think the video recorder, that can stop the action and the timing, show I was running about 20.5 pace for 200m between hurdles two and three. As my best 200 is about 21.8 it was not surprising that I paid for it in the hone straight. But, as you mentioned Akii saw me ahead and again made a bit of a surge about the sixth hurdle and for a split second he must have said there goes the gold. Then he came back and  that is really what makes a champion: the fact that he did not give up when perhaps many people would let that little statement of 'There it goes' be the end. He neglected to look at the hurdles and just ran flat out from there to the tape."
   My great friend the Ex-international-hurdler and journalist PETER HILDRETH wrote in the Sunday Telegraph when David retired "'The last Flight of A Rare Bird"

Alastair Aitken

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