Herb McKenley: Olympic gold medallist at Helsinki
Tuesday 04 March 2008
Herb McKenley was an outstanding athlete, coach and administrator, who did everything except win an individual Olympic gold medal. He won one for the relay and had three individual silvers (twice finishing in the same time as the winner), and held world records at 300 yards, 300 metres, 400 yards and 400 metres.
McKenley, still the only athlete to reach an Olympic track final in all three main sprint events (100m, 200m and 400m), will be remembered chiefly for his amazing run in the 4 x 400m relay and a narrow miss in the individual 100m, both at Helsinki in 1952. He was Jamaica's most widely recognised sporting personality and was appointed to the Jamaican Order of Merit in 2004.
Herbert Henry McKenley, the son of a doctor, was born in 1922 at Pleasant Valley, in the rural parish of Clarendon. He was educated at Calabar High School, St Andrew, and impressed first in the national Boys' Championships. In 1942 he won a scholarship to Boston College in the United States.
He moved to the University of Illinois in 1945, where he met up with the coach Leo Johnson, who helped to launch McKenley's campaign to become the "world's greatest quarter-miler". During 1947 and 1948, he set the individual world record on three occasions, including 45.9 seconds for the 400m at Milwaukee on 2 July 1948, less than a month before he competed in the London Olympics.
McKenley, favourite for the gold medal in London, started the 400m with a dynamic burst putting him well ahead at 200m. He blamed his failure to win on his own over-confidence. Feeling easy and relaxed, he changed his style of running and Arthur Wint, his long-striding compatriot, overtook him to win in 46.2 to his 46.41 seconds. Wint's collapse through cramp later cost Jamaica the chance of gold in the relay. McKenley was also fourth in the 200m.
Four years later, he won two individual silvers and a relay gold at Helsinki. McKenley always thought that he had won the 100m. After a terrible start, he finished strongly in 10.4 seconds, the same time as the American Lindy Remigino – but Remigino (who also thought McKenley had won) was given first place by one-hundredth of a second. McKenley attributed his failure to win the 400m to that earlier defeat by Wint. Concerned with Wint's challenge on the final turn, he allowed his stocky team-mate, George Rhoden, with whom he was running pace-for-pace, to slip ahead. McKenley closed down the distance but too late – both men finished in 45.9sec with Rhoden having the advantage.
Jamaica's performance in the 4 x 400m relay has passed into legend. On the third leg, McKenley took the baton from Wint some 12 metres down on the United States. Pitted against Charlie Moore, the 400m hurdles champion, he seemed to have no chance, but remembered coach Johnson's early advice, "do a little at a time". McKenley ran a record-breaking 44.6sec to hand over to Rhoden a metre up on Mal Whitfield, and Jamaica won the gold medal in the world record time of 3min 03.9sec.
In retirement Herb McKenley became an acclaimed coach and administrator. For six years, he was President of the Jamaican Amateur Athletic Association. Until his final infirmity he was seen often at the trackside at the National Stadium advising young athletes, and, it is said, would feed and clothe them from his own pocket.
Herbert Henry McKenley, athlete: born Pleasant Valley, Jamaica 10 July 1922; married (two sons, two daughters); died Kingston, Jamaica 26 November 2007.
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