Herb McKenley: Olympic gold medallist at Helsinki

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.

Clayton Goodwin

Herbert Henry McKenley, athlete: born Pleasant Valley, Jamaica 10 July 1922; married (two sons, two daughters); died Kingston, Jamaica 26 November 2007.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent