PHILIP BARKER meets 1968 Olympic champion David Hemery and hears about the former athlete’s plans for a new sports charity
It happened on this day in 1968, lasted all of 48 seconds and inspired one of the most famous, perhaps infamous, commentaries in British sports broadcasting.
David Hemery’s barnstorming, golden 400 metres hurdles world record at the Mexico City Olympics 43 years ago took the event to a new dimension.
“David Hemery wins for Britain, in second place Hennige. Who cares who’s third?” exalted David Coleman in his BBC commentary.
As everyone well knows, including Coleman, the bronze medal-winner that day was Hemery’s own British team mate, John Sherwood. If you study the clip on YouTube, Coleman had good cause not to see who had finished in third place. The local TV director had gone to a head-on shot of Hemery as the elegant Briton running in lane six won the race by almost 10 metres, slicing more than 0.7sec from the world record (timings in hundredths of a second were a thing of the future then). Sherwood, out in lane eight, had barely been in the picture from 80 metres out.
Before those Games, Bob Phillips had written in the World Sports: “No one else in the field has such a combination of strength and speed to ally to a smooth technique. John Cooper came close to victory in 1964, Hemery could do even better this time.” Prophetic words.
Hemery today is never reluctant to give credit to his team mate Sherwood. “John and I were equal slowest on paper going into that final and yet we ended up standing on the podium.
“I felt, ‘Why me?’ What is it that allows some people under pressure to get close to fulfilling their potential and some under pressure do not? People came up to say what did you do with your head?
“There’ve been all sorts of ‘-ologies’, but it was incredibly important for me to ask myself the question of what I was trying to achieve and see myself getting as close as I can. So if it was hot or cold, raining, headwind, tailwind, different lane draws, bomb scares: what would you do if that happens?”
There were storms and scares in 1968. Hemery flew into Mexico City during a thunderstorm and the atmosphere on the ground was no less electric. The tragedy before the Mexico City Olympics is often forgotten, but more than 300 students were gunned down by Mexican security forces during a peaceful rally in the Plaza de Tres Culturas.
That it was revealed to the outside world was down to The Guardian’s John Rodda. The sports reporter had ducked beneath a balcony as bullets ricocheted around during the massacre. He later described it as being like the final scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Rodda contacted Lord Killanin, then an IOC vice-president to draw his attention to what had happened.
Hemery recalls how he heard of the shootings. “A student came to the edge of the compound area, a wire fence. He was trying to say this not personal, this has nothing to do with the Olympics. We respect what you are here for, the best in the world of sport, but the world’s press are here and we have no better time to challenge the regime and the surpression we are under. Please let the people inside know.”
Four decades later, and now 67, Hemery still looks remarkably lithe and fit, like his Olympian self. He remains intrigued by the questions he asked during his own athletic career.
After supporting the London Olympic bid in Singapore, he was approached by Seb Coe. “Would I do something for the legacy outside the buildings? But there was no funding attached.”
Hemery decided to set up a charity which he calls a “21st century legacy and aimed it at children of school age”.
“We thought, could we use the magic of the Games to inspire young people, engage them by teachers asking them what their own dreams are?”
The idea was first tried with secondary schools and after a successful pilot scheme this year, the project launches for real in primary schools in 2012. Each school will be visited by an Olympic star to kick off the programme in style. Then the teachers take over. Sessions can last throughout the school year and at the end, successful participants receive a medallion struck at the same mint as the Olympic medals.
The scheme costs between £1,500 and £3,000 per school to put into practice but Hemery is convinced it will enable children to realise their potential, to “be the best you can be”.
Back in 1968, the Mexico City Games were the first to make the most of the satellite technology. As the Radio Times breathlessly reported “To flash the picture from Mexico to Shepherd’s Bush takes one-third of a second.”
For 25 bob a week you could have seen it all on a 25-inch “dependable all transistor (no valves to fail) multicolour” television set.
Hemery was Britain’s first gold medallist at those Games and, articulate yet unassuming, he fitted the bill perfectly of the golden boy of the Olympics.
If 2011 world champion Dai Greene emulates him in London next year, he will almost certainly become a multi-millionaire. But there was no commercial agent waiting for Hemery when he returned home back in 1968. “People had supported me, so I just said yes to every event,” said Hemery, who duly attended the Sports Writers’ Association’s awards dinner and collected the Sportsman of the Year trophy.
“I was really run off my feet, and it was a time when I was a student and it was actually quite difficult, because several times, people didn’t even offer the petrol money to get there, so it was a totally different era.”
One tribute has lasted even longer.
“My coach from Boston has sent a card every year since 1969. This year’s arrived last week in time for the 43rd anniversary of the race.”