Barry Davies' Olympic Moments: David Hemery, Mexico 1968

In a 10-part series, BBC broadcaster Barry Davies recalls the most memorable Olympic moments of his 44 years on air from the Games.

One of the things I first learned about being at an Olympic Games is that you are there, but you are not necessarily where you want to be.

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The victory produced a famous line from David Coleman

The first of my 10 most memorable Olympic moments comes from the Mexico 1968 Olympic Games - my first. It's the performance of David Hemery in the 400m hurdles.

At the time, as I recall, I was out covering a cycle race - which at the time was considered one of the minor sports. That was my brief with ITV. When I got back, I immediately asked to watch a recording of Hemery's performance without knowing the result (although it irritated me that people back at home already knew the story before I did, even though I was there).

Hemery was 24 at the time and, like me, making his Olympic debut. The 400m hurdles that year saw an extremely good field come together - particularly two Americans, Geoff Vanderstock and Ron Whitney. John Sherwood was the other runner for Britain, in the outside lane.

David Hemery remembers

David Hemery

Hemery, now 67, recently recalled the race for The Independent.

"I remember being petrified. As I looked around, I knew five [other runners in the final] had run faster than me.

"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?'

"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."

Everybody came inside the previous world record except the man who finished last, which tells you something about the quality of the race.

Hemery was leading by the third hurdle and he just went away. At the time, I'm sure people thought, 'He's mad, he's gone far too fast over the first 200m'. And yet, at every hurdle, he moved away. He was over the final hurdle as the rest of the field were rising for the last challenge.

It was just a brilliant performance. He won in 48.12 seconds, a new world record by seven-tenths of a second.

More than that, though, the hard work he had put in before that achievement was considerable. He was helped by a number of coaches, in particular a man at Boston University, where he was for quite a long time, by the name of Billy Smith.

Hemery had spent quite a lot of his early life in the United States, even to the point where there was a slight feeling, in some amateur British circles, that he was a "professional from over there".

When Hemery first arrived in the US and Smith was looking after him on a bleak, snowy day, he opened the front door when David came down ready to do some work, and said: "The road to Mexico is out there." And he forced him into a run.

Smith later sent him a note before the Olympic final, saying: "There are a thousand hills and sand dunes behind you. There isn't time for the others to catch up." That was a great boost to his confidence, I'm sure.

What followed was a classic performance, winning an Olympic gold medal in a world-record time and winning by eight yards. The victory also produced a famous line from David Coleman - one which I'm sure he's regretted all his life, but which was perfectly understandable.

As the Melbourne 1956 steeplechase gold medallist turned journalist Chris Brasher put it, "It was Hemery first, the rest nowhere." Coleman, commentating, got the second runner, West Germany's Gerhard Hennige, but he couldn't remember who was third.

And he said: "Who cares who's third? It doesn't matter."

What happened next

This was Hemery's only Olympic title, though he won bronze at Munich 1972 alongside 4x400m relay silver.

Hemery was crowned Sports Personality of the Year for 1968 and later went into sports politics, becoming president of UK Athletics.

He is now vice-chairman of the British Olympic Association.

Yet the interesting thing, over the years, is that there was a young man in Sheffield who cared quite a lot.

This young gent (who probably saw the race on television before I managed to see it) was so inspired by bronze medallist John Sherwood - and Sheila, John's wife, who had won silver in the long jump the previous day - that he became a member of their athletics club. And he put it to very good purpose.

He is now the man who ran the bid for, and subsequent delivery of, the London Olympic Games: Lord Sebastian Coe.