Hero of the Hurdles
Llewellyn Herbert showed his true colours when an April fool’s joke ended in an SA Record. So fierce a competitor was the Bethal-born athlete that when he was jokingly told that the record set on 27 March would not be ratified – he promptly went out to break it (he equalled it) in his very next race. That was the character of Llewellyn Herbert. He could not stand the thought of losing or being thwarted.
Llewellyn Herbert showed a remarkable talent for flying over 10 sets of hurdles while sprinting around the 400m track from an early age. So much so, that he found himself on the start line of the World Junior Athletics Championships in Sydney in 1996.
49.15sec later and Herbert had earned himself his first international medal, the silver medal behind Qatar’s Mburak Al-Nubi. For Herbert the medal on the global stage was just reward for a season that saw him show glimpses of what BBC Commentator, Paul Dickenson referred to as a “precocious talent”.
By the end of 1996, Llewellyn had competed at his first Olympic Games (Atlanta) and enjoyed a 10 race winning streak and was sniffing at breaking the 49sec barriers in one of the toughest events on the athletics program. All this before his 20th birthday. But it was 1997 that was to be the break-through year in his career. Everything up until then had merely been building blocks in his quest to “world domination” of this chosen event.
Things were shaping nicely for Llewellyn as he prepared for the first of the three Engen Grand Prix Summer Series in Polokwane (then Pietersburg). Unbeaten in his first five races, Llewellyn had given South Africans a taste of what was going to come when he clocked 48.83sec in Pretoria on 21 March – this was a whisker off the SA Record of Dries Vorster (48.46sec) that had stood since 1989.
Facing Llewellyn was the Atlanta 400mh semi-finalist, Ken Harnden of Zimbabwe. Bearing in mind that Llewellyn had not gone past the group rounds in Atlanta at the Olympics a year previously, this was formidable competition for Llewellyn who was still 19 (he would turn 20 in July that year). But the Llewellyn Herbert of 1997 was not the same care free youngster of a year ago. He had seen what he could become and set about achieving that with aplomb.
27 March, 1997 was the first step on the road to 400m hurdling greatness. It was the first of the three-legged Engen Grand Prix Summer Series of the year and Llewellyn was going to set the scene for the rest of the Series. Llewellyn took a giant leap forward in his career, shattering the almost 10-year-old SA 400mh record by racing to a 48.35sec win in Polokwane. Harnden was left speechless. “I may just as well have been standing still and waved Llewellyn, goodbye when he flew passed me.” With that win and the record, Llewellyn had earned the early favourite title of winning the Grand Prix Jackpot of R30 000.
A cruel joke by a friend virtually cemented that Jackpot. His friend on 1 April (April Fool’s Day) told him that his record run was not going to be ratified due to faulty equipment. Llewellyn was furious and promptly stated he would break the record again. He got his chance the very next day on 2 April in front some 20 000 spectators in Pretoria. He went and ran 48.35sec – the exact same time as he had run up-country a week earlier. Llewellyn wrapped up the Jackpot prize of R30 000 a week later in Cape Town at the Engen Grand Prix Final on 8 April with a time of 48.78sec.
In a season in which Llewellyn lined up on 23 occasions, he emerged victorious on 19 of those, three runner up places and one third place. One those wins was the World University title in Catania, Italy on 29 August and his first senior global medal, finishing second at the World Championships in Athens on 4 August in a time of 47.86sec – breaking his own SA Record. He was beaten by France’s Stephane Diagana (47.70sec). 1997 was indeed a record-breaking year for Llewellyn.
A crowd favourite
Llewellyn had charisma and was popular with the fans in both South Africa and abroad. He had his own fan squad, a group of guys from a hostel who would follow him around South Africa and wear orange overalls. And they made noise, lots of noise when he was introduced on the track and when he won.
He was also very popular with the youngster in Europe, particularly in Finland. A happy hunting ground for Llewellyn. The crowds loved his trademark stance of standing behind the blocks and facing away from the start line, his eyes hidden behind his signature sunglasses which helped him to focus.
Llewellyn is arguably one of the best athletes to have never won a Global or Olympic title. His record is incredible. In 168 races, Llewellyn would walk away the victor on 102 occasions. That’s a 60%-win ratio. Injury probably put paid to a few medals. In 1999 Llewellyn was odds on favourite to win the World Championships. Coming into the Global Competition, Llewellyn had run 18 times, winning 17 of those. The last win coming on 28 July in Lahti, Finland. He was scheduled to race in Monte Carlo on 4 August but withdrew due to injury. A week later he finished 4th in the Weltklasse. Although the injury remained unresolved, he travelled to Sevilla, Spain for the World Championships, but he did not start. His injury had not healed sufficiently.
A year later in 2000 Llewellyn was again a favourite to win the Olympic Gold. His biggest rival was Angelo Taylor of the USA. Wins in his heat and semi saw Llewellyn start the final in lane 6. Rival Taylor was in lane 1. You would have thought that Llewellyn had the better lane, but Taylor had the race of his life, flying to a 47.50sec win. Saudi Arabia’s Hadi Souan Somayi a fraction behind (47.53sec) leaving Llewellyn to take the Bronze with a new SA Record of 47.81sec.
Llewellyn would retire with a World Championship Silver, an Olympic Bronze and two African Championship titles and World Student Games title. At the 2003 World Championships running in lane 8, Llewellyn was lying third before hitting the final hurdle which cost him a medal as the rest of the field swept past him. He won the South African title from 1996 to 2002 for a total of seven national titles in the 400m hurdles and also won the 110mh titles in 1996 and 1997.
Nine times he would don the Green and Gold of South Africa. He became the first South African to break 48sec in the 400m hurdles, going below the mark on three occasions.
Sub 48sec: 3 (47.81 – Olympic Stadium, Sydney, 2000; 47.83se, Roodepoort,
1999; 47.86sec, Athens 1997)
SA Representations: Nine
Olympic Medal: One (Bronze Sydney 2000)
World Champs: Silver 1997, Athens
World Junior Champs: Silver 1996, Sydney
Africa Champs: Gold (2002/4)
SA Titles: 9 (400mh – 7, 110mh – 2)
Manfred Seidler has been in the media industry in athletics since 1994 having managed the media around a number of SA Track and Field Championships, SA Cross Country Championships and Road Championships. He also was the media account director on the hugely successful Engen Grand Prix Summer Series from 1995 to 1997 before being head hunted by the Television company Octagon CSI. Manfred founded the athletics TV Show Athletics Alive (later to become Engen Gijima) until the sponsor withdrew from the sport in 2003. During that time Manfred had the privilege of traveling the world and meeting and interviewing some of the best athletes in the world while he chased South Africa’s finest around the globe. Manfred resurrected Athletics Alive in 2011 on behalf of SABC and produced the show until 2016. He has covered three Olympic Games (2008/12/16 - was in London for 2012), the Commonwealth Games (2006/10/14/18) and was able to attend three World Championships. Manfred is now an accomplished Media Consultant with Athletics his biggest focus - and still his biggest passion.