Our countdown of the greatest Olympic athletes for each event group continues with the women’s hurdles
Australia’s Shirley Strickland was not the first talented athlete in her family. Her father, Dave, was a top sprinter and was set to represent Australia at the 1900 Olympics, but he lacked the funds for the trip to Paris.
An all-round sporting talent as a school girl, Strickland began to take athletics seriously in her early twenties. By 1947, at age 21, Strickland was the top female athlete in the country, winning national titles in the 100y, 220y, 440y, 90y hurdles and the shot.
She made her Olympic debut at the 1948 Games in London, but in all four events – 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4x100m – she was up against the mighty Fanny Blankers-Koen. While the Dutchwoman won gold in all of those events, Strickland picked up one silver (4x100m) and two bronze medals (80m hurdles and 100m) behind her.
Two years later at the British Empire Games, Strickland was the star of the track as she won three gold medals and two silver.
She continued her progress with her second Olympic appearance at the Helsinki Games in 1952, contesting the three events in which she had won medals four years prior. Blankers-Koen, now aged 34, was making her final Olympic appearance but was hampered by a skin condition and wasn’t the same force that she was in 1948.
Instead it was Strickland’s own team-mate, Marjorie Jackson, who was the big favourite in the 100m and she duly delivered, equalling the world record of 11.5 as Strickland won another bronze.
But it was in the 80m hurdles where Strickland excelled, and after setting an Olympic record of 11.0 in the heats, she broke the world record with 10.9 to win her first Olympic gold medal.
Alongside her Australian team-mates, Strickland looked set to win another gold medal in the 4x100m. They set a world record of 46.1 in the heats, but a costly baton mix-up in the final cost them dearly and they finished fifth.
Strickland, who set a 100m world record of 11.3 in 1955, made her final Olympic appearance in front of a home crowd at the 1956 Games in Melbourne. At 31, she was easily the oldest entrant in the 100m at those Games, while team-mate and new star Betty Cuthbert was one of the youngest. Strickland exited the competition in the heats, while Cuthbert went on to win gold.
In the 80m hurdles a few days later, Strickland was back on top. It was expected to be close as she was up against European champion Mariya Golubnichiya, who had equalled Strickland’s world record in 1954, and West Germany’s Zenta Gastl, who had broken the world record earlier in the year.
But ultimately Strickland was a convincing winner, taking the gold in 10.7, two metres clear of Golubnichiya as Gastl failed to even make the final.
Her final race at the 1956 Games was in the 4x100m – an event she was keen to take gold in, after near misses in the two prior Games. Australia impressed with a world record of 44.9 in the heats, but Great Britain were strong too. Strickland ran the lead off leg in the final, but going into the final exchange Australia were still behind Great Britain. With a superb anchor, 100m champion Cuthbert passed the British team with 50m to go and brought Australia home to a gold medal with another world record, 44.5.
Strickland retired soon after the 1956 Games, but remained involved with the sport. At the 2000 Sydney Games she was one of the final torchbearers at the opening ceremony. She passed away in February 2004, just a few weeks after the death of Blankers-Koen.
The other athletes who received votes from readers of Athletics Weekly.
The ‘Flying Housewife’ was the star of the 1948 Games, winning four gold medals. Although she was best known for her all-round ability, the 80m hurdles was one of her best events and she set three world records over the barriers.
Having started her career as a combined eventer and later a sprint hurdler, Gunnell found her best event in time for the 1988 Games, where she finished fifth in the 400m hurdles as a 22-year-old. By the time of the next Games, she was the world’s best in the event and struck gold in 1992, going on to win the world title one year later with a world record.
The Bulgarian sprint hurdler was just a junior when she made her Olympic debut in 1980, finishing sixth in her semi-final. Had it not been for the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Games, Donkova would have been a real medal contender, but she gained redemption in 1988. Having set a still-standing world record of 12.21 earlier in the year, she won gold in 12.38. Four years later, she took bronze in Barcelona.
The Jamaican 400m hurdler was a distant seventh behind Gunnell at the 1992 Games, but at the Atlanta Olympics she came out on top, winning gold with an Olympic record of 52.82. She followed that up with a silver medal at the 2000 Olympics.
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