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Taking it in stride

Clearing hurdles developed into a kind of art form as competitors started experimenting with the step sequences between hurdles.

Clearing the hurdles has developed into an art form

Deutch champion Fanny Blankers-Koen jumps a hurdle during the 80m hurdles event in London, July 1948. ((Staff/AFP/Getty Images))
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The first recorded hurdles events took place at England's Eton College about 1837. Back then, competitors didn't take the hurdles in stride. Instead, they broke their stride to jump over each one. Clearing hurdles developed into a kind of art form as competitors started experimenting with the step sequences between hurdles.

In 1885, A.C.M. Croome of Oxford University started clearing each hurdle leaning forward with one leg extended straight ahead. That form is the basis of the modern hurdler's approach.

The men's 110-metre hurdles made its Olympic debut in 1896. Four years later, organizers introduced the men's 200-metre hurdles and 400-metre hurdles. The former event was discontinued after the 1904 Games. Women joined the fun in 1932, when they started competing in the 80-metre hurdles. That race was extended by 20 metres in 1972. Twelve years later, women finally started competing in the 400-metre hurdles.

Fanny Blankers-Koen

Many athletes have distinguished themselves in this event. Among the first to do so was Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands - the first international superstar on a par with the likes of Jesse Owens and Paavo Nurmi in women's track.

She was an outstanding all-around athlete who made her Olympic debut as a high jumper in 1936. Due to the outbreak of the Second World War, Blankers-Koen didn't make another Olympic appearance until 1948.

Harrison Dillard jumps a hurdle during his training at the London Olympics, 1948. ((AFP/Getty Images))
In the months leading up to the event, she was dismissed as too old to compete and was chided for neglecting her son and daughter. Her husband assured critics the athlete was "a real housewife" with an aptitude for cooking and cleaning.

Blankers-Koen shrugged off the criticism and went to work, winning four gold medals in London, including the 80-metre hurdles, and establishing herself one of the greatest female athletes in history.

While Blankers-Koen was dominating the women's field, Harrison Dillard was doing the same in men's competition. The American won four gold medals in two Games (1948 and 1952), including one in the 110-metre hurdles. At the end of that race, the usually reserved Dillard jumped for joy. 1952 also saw Shirley Strickland de la Hunty of Australia win the first of her two hurdles gold medals.

Another American, Lee Calhoun, won the 110-metre hurdles in 1956 and 1960. Compatriot Glenn Ashby Davis won the 400-metre hurdles at the same pair of Games.

Moses and the reign of Kingdom

Both were ultimately eclipsed by another American who is widely considered the all-time greatest hurdler. In 1976, Edwin Moses was an engineering student at a college without a track. Nonetheless, in his first international competition, the Montreal Games, he won the 400-metre hurdles by eight metres, the largest margin of victory in the event's history.

He had to stay home in 1980 because of the American boycott of the Moscow Olympics, but he came back in 1984 to win the event again and finished third in 1988. Incredibly, Moses won 122 consecutive races between 1977 and 1987.

By that time, Roger Kingdom of the U.S. was well-established as  the king of the 110-metre hurdles, winning the gold in 1984 and 1988. The heir to his throne, Britain's Colin Jackson, finished second in 1988 and would go on to become a world champion and world-record holder. But, he was dogged by inconsistency and would never win another Olympic medal. Toronto's Mark McKoy would win Canada's second hurdles gold medal in 1992.

Mark McKoy

Guyanan-born Canadian Mark McKoy burst on to the international track scene when he was 20 years old, winning the 110m hurdles title at the 1982 Commonwealth Games.

In 1988, he finished seventh in the 110m hurdles and then fled Seoul in the wake of the Ben Johnson drug scandal. His move angered Canadian officials, who had expected him to be available to run the 4x100m relay, and they suspended him for two years.

Worse was yet to come. At the Dubin Inquiry in the wake of the Johnson doping affair, McKoy admitted that he, too, had taken steroids. But even if he was chastened, McKoy seemed disburdened and came back to shine at the 1992 Barcelona Games. At 30, he became the oldest man ever to win the 110m hurdles at the Olympics.

Today, he's a personal trainer at the Toronto-area Institute for Sports Medicine.

Gail Devers

Gail Devers could relate, at least in the 100-metre hurdles. In that event, she was the queen without an Olympic medal, although she did have 100-metre gold medals from 1992 and 1996.

Devers advanced to the semifinals of the 100-metre hurdles at the 1988 Seoul Games even though she had been suffering from migraine headaches, sleeplessness and fainting spells. Her health continued to deteriorate, and in 1990, she was diagnosed with Graves' disease, a thyroid disorder.

Gail Devers of the USA celebrates after winning the 100-metre final at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. ((Tony Duffy/Allsport))
Devers underwent radiation treatment and suffered horrible side effects, including infected and swollen feet. Doctors considered amputating her feet, but opted not to, and she ended up putting them to good use.

Devers returned to competition after sitting out two-and-a-half years, and captured gold in the 100 at the 1992 Barcelona Games. She won the same event at the 1996 Atlanta Games, where she added another gold in the 4x100-metre relay.

While training for the 2000 Sydney Games, Devers injured her right Achilles tendon and left hamstring. The problems forced her to withdraw from competition in Australia.

Although Canadian men have struggled to follow in Mark McKoy's footsteps, the women have given the hurdles program hope.

Perdita Felicien won the 2003 IAAF world championships in Paris and followed that victory with a surprise 60-metre hurdles gold medal at the 2004 IAAF world indoor championships in Budapest, Hungary. These vistories established her as a heavy favourite to win the Olympic gold in Athens but she suffered a catastrophe.

After a superb start in the final, Felicien hit the first hurdle and went crashing to the track. The disappointment was compounded by the fact she had seriously injured herself in the fall. A year later she failed to make the world championship final and was all but forgotten.

Angela Whyte and Priscilla Lopes both reached world class stature around this time. Last summer at the world championships in Osaka, Felicien surprised everyone with a silver medal performance, while Whyte also made the final, finishing 8th.

Notable Medallists

Multiple Gold

Lee Calhoun, U.S. - 2 (110m - 1956, 1960)

Glenn Davis, U.S. - 2 (400m - 1956, 1960)

Roger Kingdom, Britain - 2 (110m - 1984, 1988)

Edwin Moses, U.S. - 2 (400m - 1976, 1984)

Shirley Strickland de la Hunty, Australia - 2 (80m - 1952, 1956)

 

Canadian Medallists

Mark McKoy - 1 gold (110m - 1992)

Earl Thomson - 1 gold (110m - 1920)

John Loaring - 1 silver (400m - 1936)

George Orton - 1 bronze (400m - 1900)

Elizabeth Taylor-Campbell - 1 bronze (80m - 1936)

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