A look back at the men’s 110m hurdles as Steve Smythe reflects on the history of events at the Olympics

This looks like being an open event in Rio and there are some doubts as to who might be there as surprise world champion Sergey Shubenkov’s appearance depends on the IAAF’s decision on the Russian doping scandal. Knowing which three Americans will be in Brazil isn’t easy either.

The most competitive race of the year may well be at the US Olympic trials – six athletes ran 13.25 or faster in 2015. Defending champion Aries Merritt is recovering from a kidney operation but pre op showed he was in form with a third place finish in Beijing.

The 2013 world champion David Oliver was the fastest American in 2015 with four marks at 13.08 or faster but lacks consistency in major events.

Aleec Harris, former world champion and Olympic bronze medallist Jason Richardson and Ronnie Ash look the other most likely challengers based on 2015 form.

Jamaica should also have a strong team headed by Olympic and world silver medallist Hansle Parchment and 12.97 performer Omer McCleod.

Cuban world leader Orlando Ortega and France’s enigmatic Pascal Martinot-Lagarde look the best of the rest.

Britain could well provide a finalist through either Andy Pozzi, Will Sharman or 2012 fourth-placer Lawrence Clarke or possibly even European under-23 champion David Omoregie.

1896-2012

The inaugural Olympic final in Athens in 1896 had just two starters. American Thomas Curtis took the lead after the final hurdle to edge victory in 17.6. One of the original finalists decided to focus on the pole vault and another to assist a marathoner which was at the same time!

American domination continued as they won the next five Olympics, the best of which was a clean sweep of the medals in London in 1908 led by Forest Smithson’s world record in 15.0. USA had all four finalists in London and had five of the six finalists in Stockholm in 1912.

Post World War I in Antwerp in 1920 saw the first non-American win though Earl Thomson had lived in California since the age of eight. He won gold for his country of birth Canada in what was recognised as a world record 14.8, though he had run a superior time of 14.4 for the very slightly shorter 120 yards.

In Paris in 1924, Sydney Atkinson should have won but clipped the last hurdle and was pipped by American Dan Kinsey.

Four years later in Amsterdam, Atkinson’s South African team-mate George Weightman-Smith set a 14.6 world record in the semi-finals but could only finish fifth in the final as Atkinson made up for his loss with a narrow win in 14.8.

USA was back in command in Los Angeles in 1932. George Sailing won in 14.6 after a 14.4 semi-final. They also won  in 1936 in Berlin as Forest Towns won in a time of 14.2 after equalling his own world record of 14.1 in his semi-final.

After the war, American dominance was maintained. They won the next seven finals.

William Porter got the Olympic record below 14 seconds with a 13.9 world record in London in 1948 as America took the medals. World record-holder Harrison Dillard went out in the US hurdles trials but he did win the Olympic 100m before returning four years later to win gold in Helsinki in 13.7 but was helped by his main  rival Jack Davis hitting the ninth hurdle and the pair shared an Olympic record 13.5.

In Melbourne in 1956, Davis again shared the Olympic record and the winning time but this time his 13.5 fell short of team-mate Lee Calhoun. Calhoun also won in Rome in 1960.

Hayes Jones was third in Italy but he won gold in Tokyo in the fastest electrical time yet of 13.67. After four clean sweeps in the last four Games, this was only a USA one-two as US trial winner Willie Davenport injured himself in the semi-finals.

Davenport was fully fit in Mexico City in 1968 and won in a fast 13.33 which at the time was given as 13.3 and equaling Ervin Hall’s semi-final time. Hall finished second.

Davenport finished fourth in 1972 in Munich as Rod Milburn powered to a world record equaling 13.2 (13.24 electrical).

France’s Guy Drut finished a metre back in second and in Montreal in 1976 he became the first non-English speaking winner. In his fourth Olympics, Davenport finished third and also competed in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

There were no Americans in Moscow in 1980 due to the boycott over the Russian invasion of Afghanistan which almost certainly cost world record-holder Renaldo Nehemiah the gold medal and a US clean- sweep. In their absence East Germany’s Thomas Munkelt won gold in the slowest time since 1964.

Americans were back but East Germany were absent in Los Angeles in 1984. Roger Kingdom surprised inaugural World champion Greg Foster and won in an Olympic record 13.20 to Foster’s 13.23.

Kingdom was the favourite in 1988 in Seoul after dominating his event that year and took gold with the biggest margin in 68 years as he reduced the Olympic record to below 13 seconds with victory in 12.98.

Mark McKoy had finished fourth in 1984 and seventh in 1988 and fled Seoul after Ben Johnson failed a drugs test, fearing testing having admitted to drugs use himself. He was actually banned by the Canadian authorities for two years for not being available for the relay team there. He trained in Britain in 1991 and 1992 with British hope Colin Jackson and ultimately won comfortably in Barcelona.

In 1996 in Atlanta, world champion Allen Johnson reduced the Olympic record to 12.95 despite knocking down eight hurdles.

Johnson was favourite to defend in Sydney but knocked down all ten hurdles to finish fourth as gold decisively went to Anier Garcia in exactly 13.00.

USA also lost out on gold in both 2004 (see memorable Olympics below) and 2008.

In the latter Games, Dayron Robles, who had set a world record of 12.87 earlier in the year, won Olympic gold in 12.93.

There was a similar time in London in 2012 with Aries Merritt winning comfortably in 12.92 to give USA their 20th gold medal as Robles pulled up injured. Merritt set a still-standing world record of 12.80 shortly after the Games.

Most memorable Olympic 110m hurdles: Athens 2004

Liu Xiang first came to global prominence with a third place in the 2003 World Championships.

Defending champion and four-time world champion Allen Johnson was eliminated in the quarter finals when falling.

After a 13.06 semi final win many thought Ladji Doucoure looked favourite but in the final it was Liu and American Terrence Trammell who were clear leaders. After halfway, Liu went well clear and pulled away to win easily by almost three metres. He was shocked to see it was not only a still standing Olympic record but he also equalled Jackson’s world record with a 12.91 clocking.

He became China’s first ever Olympic track gold medallist. In 2006 Liu improved the world record to 12.88 in Lausanne and won the 2007 world title. Under huge pressure in Beijing in 2008 as China’s biggest star he succumbed to injury.

In Athens Trammell finished second for the second Games after Doucoure, who had passed him clattered the last two hurdles and finished a tailed off last. Doucoure did go on to win the 2005 world title.

British successes

Britain was nearest to winning a gold medal in the very first Olympics in 1896.

Grantley Goulding led over the last hurdle but lost by inches and had to settle for silver though he didn’t actually beat a single runner as only two ran!

Britain’s next medal came in 1932. Don Finlay was originally placed fourth though for the first time in history, the judges changed the result after they studied film of the race. Finlay was actually handed his bronze medal in the Olympic village by the originally placed third athlete Jack Keller, who had won in 1932.

Finlay also medalled in Berlin in 1936 but this time advanced to silver.

Britain would have to wait 42 years for its next medal. Colin Jackson was well beaten by Kingdom in 1988 but was a clear second in 13.28. Britain also finished fifth and sixth through Jon Ridgeon and Tony Jarrett respectively.

He was clear favourite in 1992 in Barcelona and he ran the fastest ever heat time of 13.10. That would have sufficed for gold in the final but he had a poor final and lost his balance and finished seventh in 13.46 with Jarrett just missing a medal in fourth in 13.26.

Jackson won the 1993 world title in a world record 12.91 but he could only finish fourth in 13.19 in 1996.

In his fourth Olympic final – and he also made four World Championship finals – Jackson finished fifth in Sydney in 2000.

In 2012 Lawrence Clarke finished fourth and top European.

» Check out editions of Athletics Weekly magazine from September 24, 2015, for more from our ‘Countdown to Rio’ series

» For the full Olympic history: Men’s 110m hurdles feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the February 4, 2016, edition of AW magazine