Hemmings becomes Jamaica’s first lady of the track

Picture by Getty

As strange as it may now seem, prior to Atlanta 1996, no Jamaican woman had ever won an Olympic gold medal in an individual event. That, though, was about to change, thanks to the brilliance of Deon Hemmings.

Hemmings had initially emerged as a good 400m runner, but was eventually forced to concede that many of her contemporaries were far better. After moving to Ohio in the USA to take up a university scholarship she discovered that she was in fact much better suited to the 400m hurdles.

Suddenly, she looked every inch the star in the making. In 1992, less than two years after she first tried the event, Hemmings found herself in an Olympic final, and finished seventh. Having come so far so quickly, the Jamaican was determined to make an even bigger impact at the next Games in Atlanta.

She was up against stiff opposition. The USA’s Kim Batten and Tonja Buford had both beaten the previous world record and set times that were nearly a second faster than Hemmings's personal best. But timing is the key to winning major titles, and Hemmings was about to show that she knew how to produce her best performance when it mattered most.

In the semi-final, she ran a time of 52.99 seconds. It was not just the first time she had gone below 53 seconds, it was also a full half second faster than she had ever run before. Her performance laid down a crucial psychological marker. Any idea that this was a two-horse race was now gone.

In the final, Hemmings led after 200m, but the Americans came back at her. After the first eight hurdles, Hemmings, Batten and Burford were running level, but the Jamaican found some extra strength over the final straight. She opened up a lead over the ninth hurdle, extended it over the final hurdle to go two metres clear of Batten. By the time she crossed line in first place to become Jamaica’s first individual female Olympic champion she had a 0.26 second advantage over her closest rival and had set a new Olympic record.

Hemmings competed again in Sydney four years later, this time taking silver in the 400m hurdles and winning another silver as a member of Jamaica's 4x400m relay team.