A look at the women’s 400m hurdles as Steve Smythe reflects on the history of events at the Olympics

World leader Dalilah Muhammad, Sydney McLaughlin and Ashley Spencer make up the US team for Rio after the current world No.2, Shamier Little, missed out on a spot.

Britain’s European champion Eilidh Doyle has impressed in 2016, running a 54.09 PB in Monaco which ranks her sixth this year after a Diamond League win in Doha.


The first women’s Olympic 400m hurdles was held in 1984 in Los Angeles, the year after the first World Championships.

The first five in Helsinki from the Soviet Union and East Germany weren’t able to run in America, though, due to the boycott.

The inaugural champion was Nawal El Moutawakel, who became the first woman from an Islamic nation to win an Olympic title and the first Moroccan, male or female, to win gold. She hadn’t made the final in Finland but won a poor-standard race in Los Angeles easily in 54.61 seconds.

The race was shown live back in Morocco at 2am and crowds went on to the streets of Casablanca to celebrate. The Moroccan king decreed that all women born that day should be called Nawal.

In 1988 in Seoul, Debbie Flintoff-King, who had been a well-beaten sixth in 1984, won an exciting race that went to the wire. The Australian was only fifth at halfway and some way behind the leaders. Soviet Union’s Tatyana Ledovskaya looked a clear winner over the last two hurdles, but Flintoff-King closed the gap and a strong dip gave her the title in a PB and Olympic record of 53.17, but only because Ledovskaya (53.18) didn’t dip.

Britain won gold in 1992 (see “British successes” below) and Deon Hemmings was only seventh in 55.58, over two seconds behind the winner. The Jamaican was a different proposition though in Atlanta in 1996.

In the semi-final, Hemmings set a big PB and Olympic record of 52.99 and then in an exciting final, she fought off the challenge of Kim Batten and Tonja Buford who had bettered the world record in the 1995 World Championships.

All three were even at the eighth hurdle but Hemming went away to win by two metres in 52.82 to become Jamaica’s first Olympic women champion.

In 1992, Irina Privalova won an Olympic bronze at 100m but failed to make either sprint final in 1996. By Sydney in 2000, she had taken up the 400m hurdles and the former speed skater ran just her sixth race over the barriers in the Olympic heats. In the semi-final, she won in a PB 54.02 and then improved a whole second in the final to go away from Hemmings over the last two hurdles.

In Athens in 2004, the world record-holder at 52.34, Yuliya Pechenkina, was the favourite which she confirmed with the fastest heat time. However, to the delight of the Greek crowd, Fani Halkia, who had a pre-2004 best of just 56.40, suspiciously improved to an Olympic record 52.77 in her semi-final and then won the final easily in 52.82. Pechenkina was a poor last.

In 2007 Melaine Walker just missed out on making the world final, but the Jamaican was in superb form in Beijing in 2008 and she won by the huge margin of more than a second in an Olympic record 52.64. Walker was even faster in the 2009 World Championships, which she won in a near world record 52.42.

She wasn’t in the same form in 2012 and failed to make the final as Antyukh came close to the Olympic record with a 52.70 as she narrowly beat Demus’s 52.77.

British successes

A relative novice in the event, Sally Gunnell had finished fifth in the Seoul Games of 1988.

The former Commonwealth sprint hurdles champion had improved after her Olympic run, going on to win the 1990 European and Commonwealth double and just losing out to Tatyana Ledovskaya in the 1991 world final.

In Barcelona a year later, she was given a good race by Sandra Farmer-Patrick but eventually won comfortably in 53.23 from the American’s 53.69.

The Brit had a rerun with Farmer-Patrick in a classic World Championships race in which Gunnell broke the world record with a 52.74 but only just won.

She tried to defend her Olympic title in 1996 but, carrying an injury, she failed to finish her semi-final.

The only other British medal in the one-lap hurdles came in the Beijing Games in 2008 when Natasha Danvers had the race of her life to win a bronze in a personal best of 53.84.

» 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 400m hurdles feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the January 28, 2016, edition of AW magazine