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Hemmings - Historic Olympic gold on July 31

Published:Sunday | July 31, 2016 | 12:21 AMHubert Lawrence
Deon Hemmings (centre) celebrates after winning the 400m hurdles at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

Does the date July 31, 1996 sound familiar to you? It should. Unless you were in Atlanta, you were in your living room screaming for joy at your big back television as Deon Hemmings made history. Despite the sterling efforts of greats like Merlene Ottey, Deon became the first Jamaican woman to win an Olympic gold medal on that date.

Third the previous year at the 1995 World Championships in the 400 metres hurdles, Hemmings drove past the American pair of world record holder Kim Batten and Tonja Buford-Bailey to fly across the finish line in 52.82 seconds. The Americans had gone 1-2 in the World Championships but Hemmings' perfectly executed race had produced an Olympic record and a Jamaican record.

That upset didn't come without a warning as the long-legged St Ann native had stepped to an Olympic record of 53 seconds flat in the semis.

In the 20 years that have passed, Melaine Walker and Kaliese Spencer are the only Jamaicans to beat Hemmings' time in Atlanta. In the Olympics before she made history, Grace Jackson and Juliet Cuthbert had raced to silver medals in the sprints. In the 1992 Olympics, Cuthbert was desperately close to American winner Gail Devers in the 100.


Major landmark


The same fate befell Ottey in the 100 on August 1, 1996, with Devers again finishing a slender centimetre in front.

In that context, the Hemmings victory is a major landmark. In the years since she did a victory lap with fourth placed team-mate Debbie-Ann Parris, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce and Walker have followed in her golden footsteps to the top of the Olympic dias. Hemmings opened the floodgates and Jamaica's women in the Olympic Games haven't looked back.

Incidentally, Hemmings finished second to Russian Irina Privalova in the Sydney 2000 Olympics and came closer than anyone before or since to repeating as women's 400m hurdles champion.

Hemmings and Walker are Jamaica's best in the event of all-time. Walker is faster on the clock at 52.42 seconds and has an honour, a World Championships gold medal, that eluded Hemmings through a long career. On the flip side, Walker has just one Olympic medal. Hemmings has two.

Finish that debate on another day. Today, July 31, is reserved for remembering that moment 20 years ago when Deon Hemmings opened the golden floodgates.