David Hemery: 'I didn't know I had won, let alone beaten the world record'

Continuing our series, David Hemery recalls his 400m hurdles win being such a blur he needed the BBC to tell him he was champion

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I'm not sure what people expect the build-up to an Olympic final to be like, but I don't remember it being that glamorous in Mexico in 1968.

Thirty minutes before the 400m hurdles final was due to begin at Estadio Olimpico Universitario, I was in a room that measured something like 20ft by 12ft. In the middle was a double bench and walking around that was every other runner I'd be competing against in less than an hour's time.

The adrenalin was pumping and I remember it all vividly even today. I also remember being petrified. The world-record holder Geoff Vanderstock, one of the fancied Americans, was there. Then there was the West German athlete Gerhard Hennige, and my compatriot John Sherwood. As I looked around, I knew five of them had run faster than me.

At times like that, I'm quite an introverted person so I just didn't speak to anyone. I lay down with my knees in the air and concentrated on breathing as calmly and deeply as I could. Mexico City is 7,000 metres above sea level and I wanted to get as much oxygen into my lungs as possible.

A few minutes before the start of the race, the runners were all brought out on track. We set our blocks, ran to the first hurdle and waited for it to begin.

I can honestly say as I waited for the gun, I didn't even sense people were watching me. I spent my time trying to visualise every possibility, every kind of variable. For me, it was the obvious thing to do. I'd done a lot of physical practice in the run-up to the race but I'd also tried to mentally rehearse everything that could happen.

When the gun went off, I tried to do what I could to run my own race. I knew I would only have about 30 seconds where I could run flat out so it was all about running as well as possible at 90 per cent capacity. Put simply, I had to relax at some point and I knew that I'd need something left in me for the home straight.

As the race went on, I remember passing Ron Whitney, an American who was on my outside, quite quickly. I then lost sight of John Sherwood, who was in lane eight, at the sixth hurdle. I didn't hear the crowd at all; all I could hear was the footfall of the other runners.

For the last 100m, I was running blind. I couldn't see anyone around me. By the ninth hurdle, I remember thinking how tired I was and for a split-second the thought appeared in my mind that I should slow down. But I blocked that out, this was the Olympic final.

When I crossed the line, I didn't know I'd won. Suddenly I saw Peter Lorenzo, the BBC commentator, running towards me across the track. He shoved a microphone in my hand. My first comment was: "Did I win?"

I had and in a new world-record time of 48.12sec, seven tenths faster than Vanderstock's old mark. It had always been my intention to run a world-record time rather than win the race. Every runner knows you can't control what other people do.

The gold was a fulfilment of a dream come true for me. The pride is individual but at the same time, I could not have done it without my family and coaches.

Dr David Hemery CBE is vice-chair of the British Olympic Association

This series is being run in conjunction with Richard House Children's Hospice, which is based in the Olympic borough of Newham. It caters for children with life-limiting, life-threatening and complex healthcare conditions. To find out more and to vote for your favourite British Olympic moment, visit facebook.com/richardhousech