Full Name: David Peter Hemery
Date of Birth: 18 July 1944
Born: Cirencester, Gloucestershire.
Coach(s): Fred Housden, Billy Smith.
Amid the thousands of athletes who have pulled on a British vest, David Hemery is one of the ‘Superstars‘. Official! That status was confirmed in 1973 and 1976 when he won the BBC television programme of the same name, but do not expect fame or glory to have gone to his head. Hemery remains one of the glorious, golden icons of not only British track and field, but British sport, a man whose presence and opinions still carries enormous weight, over 38 years since the race which elevated him into the limelight. Hemery won the 400m hurdles at the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968. His victory came on October 15, and each year, the American coach who helped guide him towards that triumph, rings him and they share a celebratory phonecall. The first President of UK Athletics, Hemery won Britain’s only athletics gold medal in Mexico, establishing himself as a true hero.
Dreaming From America
Hemery was born in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, and though he started running when he was nine, three years later his father’s work took the family to America. Hemery attended high school in Boston, Massachusetts, where his athletics prowess increased and he started competing in the sprint hurdles. He made a brief return to Britain, enough time to win the AAA Junior 120y hurdles before heading back to America to start at Boston University. Having been coached in Britain by Fred Housden, he then had joint advice when Billy Smith became his guide in America. Team Hemery was becoming a prolific combination.
Hemery had already started running over the 440y distance, but he excelled at so many distances, so even then it was no wonder he would later gain notoriety for his ability in different sports on the 'Superstars' programme. But of course to be on that show in those days, you had to be a household name and Hemery achieved that.
By the time of the Games in the autumn of 1968, Hemery already had a gold medal tucked away after winning the 120y hurdles at the Commonwealth Games in Kingston in 1966. But the one-lap event was proving his forte and 1968 proved to an epic year. Not withstanding the glory of Mexico, Hemery ran five British records at 440y hurdles and five more at the 400m hurdles in 1968, but nothing could beat what happened at one of the most dramatic Olympics in history. It was the Games of The Black Power salute by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, of Bob Beamon’s Long Jump world record and of a British hurdler whose triumph brought the event full circle. Hemery was not the favourite for gold because world-record holder Geoff Vanderstock, of the USA, was in the race. In lane six, Hemery was in front by the time the race reached the back straight and at this stage the race was fast becoming settled because he had such speed that he controlled the whole event. He went through halfway in under 24 seconds and when he crossed the line, he was not even sure he had won because he had looked to his right to see where Ron Whitney, another American who was renowned for his powerful finish, was, expecting him to be making a challenge. Whitney crossed the line in sixth place, while Vanderstock was only fourth as Hemery had spread-eagled a field to win in 48.12, a performance which shattered the world record by 0.82 for Britain's only athletics gold medal of the Games. Germany’s Gerhard Henninge was second with 49.02 while fellow Briton John Sherwood was third in 49.12. Hemery’s win was sensational. It was even more fittingly that the medal presentation was made by the legendary figure of Lord David Burghley, the last and only other Briton to win this Olympic event, 40 years earlier in Amsterdam.
Hemery said: “"I remember landing over the 10th hurdle and realising I had forgotten to go at it like the first. The whole year culminating in the Olympic win is something I treasure as a high point because of the integration of my body spirit. Everything was in alignment."
It was pure perfection, a performance which led to him being made the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year. But incredibly, and with much surprise, he announced after Mexico that he would not run the distance again; it was a promise which did not last.
Munich And The New Fame
During his career, Hemery set six British records at 110m/120y hurdles with a best of 13.6 in 1969 (and 13.72 on automatic timing in 1970), retaining the Commonwealth sprint hurdles title in Edinburgh in 1970, winning the World Student Games in Turin in the same year and then taking the European silver in Athens 1969.
After Mexico, he showed his multi-talents by competing also for Britain at the decathlon, with best of 6893 points, but by the time of the Olympic Games in Munich, he decided to defend his title and he started the final brilliantly, infact he was running even quicker than he had four years ago. But with 100m to go, John Aki-Bua, of Uganda, came charging through to take gold in 47.82, amazingly breaking Hemery’s world record. The Briton had to settle for third in 48.52 as American Ralph Mann came through to finish second in 48.51. He decided to retire that year, and worked as a coach and a performance consultant in both Britain and the USA but in 1973, he competed in the first British ‘Superstars’ competitions, where some of the biggest names from all sports took part in varied events, from fitness exercises to cycling to steeple chasing. Hemery triumphed and he beat an elite field to with Welsh rugby star Barry John in second and boxing star Joe Bugner in third. England’s World Cup winning football captain Bobby Moore was in sixth.
Hemery regained the title in 1976, this time beating boxer John Conteh into second with motor racing world champion James Hunt in third and in the history of the show, which made a return to British television in 2003, Hemery still holds the record number of appearances with nine.
In 1998, he became the first President of UK Athletics, and after being awarded the MBE in 1969, he received the CBE in 2003.
His son Adrian competed at decathlon for Britain’s juniors in 2000 and for the British under-23 team in 2001 and 2002 and won the AAA decathlon in 2002.
1966: 1st 120yh Commonwealth Games, sf 110mh Europeans
1968: 1st 400mh, 5th 4x400m Olympics
1969: 2nd 110mh Europeans
1970: 1st 110mh Commonwealth Games, 1st 110mh, 4th 4x400m World Universities
1972: 3rd 400mh, 2nd 4x400m Olympics
UK Internationals: 16 (1966-72)
Won NCAA 440yh 1968, AAA 120yh 1966, 440yh 1968, 400mh 1972; Junior 120yh 1963.
100m 10.9 (1969), 200m 21.8 (1970), 400m 47.1 (1972), 1500m 4:18.5 (1969), 110mh 13.72, 13.66w (1970), 13.6 (1969); 300mh 34.6 (1972), 400mh 48.12A (1968), 48.52 (1972); HJ 1.86 (1969), PV 3.00 (1969), LJ 7.17 (1969), SP 11.29 (1969), DT 32.30 (1969), JT 44.66 (1969).
Indoors: 500y 56.7 (1967), 600y 1:09.8 (1966), 50yh 6.0 (1966), 60yh 7.1 (1966), 60mh 7.9 (1977)