In a special series in the run-up to Rio 2016, Steve Smythe looks at the history of events at the Olympics, this time the women’s 100m hurdles

This was a topsy-turvy event in 2015 with Americans running the 18 fastest times of the year but not winning a medal in Beijing.

The 2015 world No.1 at 12.34 and American champion Shakira Nelvis was only eighth in the World Championships. Jasmine Stowers ran 12.35 last year but didn’t make the American team.

Brianna Rollins, the 2013 world champion, who ran 12.26 that year, did make it to Beijing but was not in top form and finished fourth.

Former Olympic champion Dawn Harper Nelson was adjudged to be top-ranked on merit despite crashing out in the world semi-finals and she has been brilliant in the last two Olympics.

Jamaican Danielle Williams won the world title but will be lucky to win gold again with a 12.57 clocking and the other medallists out in China, Cindy Roleder and Alina Talay, are unlikely to win a medal again. Defending champion Sally Pearson was injured for much of 2015.

Britain’s Tiffany Porter could be in the mix for at least a top five place if she can get back to her World Championships medal-winning form.


The first Olympic hurdles champion was Babe Didrikson in Los Angeles in 1932. The talented all-rounder, who had qualified for all five women’s individual events, had to choose three. She was already javelin champion when she equalled the world 80m hurdles record of 11.8 in the heats.

She improved to 11.7 in the final but only won by inches from American team-mate Evelyn Hall. Many thought it should have been a dead heat and it was even closer in 1936 in Berlin when officials took 30 minutes to sort the result, the first four sharing the winning time of 11.7.

The winner, Trebisonda Valla, had run a windy 11.6 in the heats, which equalled the then world’s fastest time, though it only counted as an Olympic record.

In 1948 in London, the record significantly fell to world record-holder Fanny Blankers-Koen, who had already won the 100m. She won only narrowly, though, in 11.2 from Britain’s Maureen Gardner (see “British successes” below). A metre behind in third was 100m medallist Shirley Strickland. The Australian returned in 1952 in Helsinki and there she equalled Blankers-Koen’s world record of 11.0 in her heat and then a windy 10.8 in the semi-final.

In the final, she won easily in a world record 10.9 as a less than fully fit Blankers- Koen failed to finish.

She retained her title in Melbourne in 1956 as she improved her Olympic record to 10.7, though it’s worth noting the electronic time was a mere 10.96.

In Rome in 1960 Irina Press, the younger sister of shot and discus champion Tamara added to the family collection with an easy win. She ran only 10.8 in the final, having run an Olympic record 10.6 in the heats.

Tokyo in 1964 saw a return to close races with the first three separated by two hundredths. Balzer’s 10.5 would have equalled the world record but for the wind being marginally over the limits.

The bronze medallist, Pam Kilborn, was unbeaten in the next four years and favourite for Mexico in 1968 but a slow start in the final meant she couldn’t quite catch her 17-year-old Australian team-mate Maureen Caird. She won in an Olympic record 10.39, which still stands as 1972 saw a change to the 100m hurdles.

The first race at the longer hurdles saw East German Annelie Ehrhardt win very easily in Munich in a world record 12.59. The 1964 champion, Balzer, just edged double medallist Kilborn for bronze.

Ehrhardt injured herself in the Montreal 1976 semi-finals but East Germany nevertheless retained the title with Johanna Schaller narrowly winning as five hundredths covered the top five.

Schaller just lost out in 1980 as Vera Komisova improved by a huge 0.28 seconds in Moscow to win in an Olympic record 12.54.

After the boycott-affected 1984 (see “British successes” below), the standard was better than ever in Seoul in 1988. World record-holder Yordanka Donkova won easily in an Olympic record 12.38.

The 1996 race was a much closer affair. Lyudmila Narozhilenko had fallen in the 1988 semi-finals and withdrew injured from 1992. In 1993 she tested positive for steroids and was initially banned for four years but the IAAF accepted that her husband had spiked her protein drink because she was divorcing him for her Swedish manager. She was then granted Swedish citizenship in June 1996 and the Russians cleared her to compete in July, just before Atlanta.

In America, she competed as Ludmila Engquist and after a 12.47 quarter-final and a 12.51 semi-final, she was less impressive in the final but won in 12.58.

Her reputation was tarnished later, though, as she failed a drugs test when bobsleighing in 2001.

There was also a drugs connection in Sydney in 2000 when Kazakhstan’s Olga Shishigina, who had missed Atlanta because of a drugs ban, won in 12.65.

The times were faster in Athens in 2004, where American Johanna Hayes reduced the Olympic mark to 12.37 as world champion and favourite Perdita Felicien had a heavy fall in the final.

The 2008 Olympics in Beijing saw Sally McClellan lead early on. Lolo Jones went clearly ahead mid-race but she smashed the ninth hurdle, lost momentum and dropped from first to seventh. Dawn Harper came through to win in 12.54.

Four years later in London, McClellan, now named Pearson and world champion with 12.28, won in an Olympic record 12.35 with Harper surprisingly close in a PB 12.37.

Most memorable Olympic 100m hurdles: Barcelona 1992

The race was expected to be between world champion Lyudmila Narozhilenko, who had run the five fastest times that year, and 100m champion Gail Devers, but the Russian strained a hamstring in qualifying. In the final, Devers moved into a clear lead after the fourth hurdle and appeared to be on her way to an easy victory but hit the last hurdle hard and did well to stay on her feet and finish fifth.

With Devers out of it, the race for gold was between defending champion Donkova, LaVonna Martin and Voula Patouildou. The latter had entered the event with a 12.96 PB and wildly celebrated when coming third in her semi-final to become the first Greek woman track finalist. Patoulidou had gone out in the first round of the previous year’s World Championships, but an inspired finish saw her pull off one of the Olympics’ biggest surprises as she won in 12.64 from Martin’s 12.69.

Devers, who won hurdles world titles in 1993, 1995 and 1999 and won Olympic 100m titles in 1992 and 1996, had no such success in the hurdles. She was fourth in 1996 and in 2000 she ran the fastest qualifying round in Australia with a 12.66 heat but pulled up injured in her semi-final.

British successes

Teenager Maureen Gardner surprisingly pushed the great Fanny Blankers-Koen all the way in London in 1948, sharing the Dutch woman’s time of 11.2 – so much so that the Dutchwoman thought she had lost when she heard God Save the King being played a few minutes later.

Jean Desforges, better known as a long jumper and by her married name of Pickering, was fifth in 1952. Britain fared better in Rome in 1960. Carole Quinton was less than a metre back in second in 10.9. Mary Bignal, who under her married name of Rand would in 1964 become Olympic long jump champion, was fourth.

Britain won their third and last silver medal in 1984. The boycott seriously affected the event with the 12 fastest women unable to run. American Benita Fitzgerald-Brown won in the slowest time before or since of 12.84 and close behind, Shirley Strong excelled to finish second in 12.88.

In 2008, Sarah Claxton surprised many to make the final with 12.84 in her semi-final, though she ended up eighth in the final with 12.94.

Tiffany Porter ran 12.79 in the 2012 Olympic semi-finals but missed out on making the final.

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

» For the full Olympic history: Women’s 100m hurdles feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the January 21, 2016, edition of AW magazine