Forrest Smithson of the United States set the first acknowledged world record in the 110-meter hurdles, running 15 seconds flat to win the Olympic final in 1908. The mark was officially recognized by the IAAF after its formation in 1912. The record stood until 1920, when Earl Thomson won the Olympic gold medal in 14.8 seconds. The Canadian-born Thomson was then attending Dartmouth and wanted to join the U.S. Olympic team. When he was ruled ineligible he joined the Canadian squad and brought home the gold. Sweden's Sten Pettersson matched Thomson’s performance in 1927, then George Weightman-Smith lowered it to 14.6 in 1928.
From 1929 through 1933, six different hurdlers ran the 110 hurdles in 14.4 seconds. Sweden's Erik Wennestrom was the first, breaking Weightman-Smith’s mark in August of 1929. Americans Percy Beard, Jack Keller George Saling and John Morriss all matched the standard – beginning a long run of Americans who owned the record – with Morriss doing so twice in 1933.
Beard, who went on to coach the University of Florida from 1937 through 1963, broke through the 14.4 barrier twice in 1934, running 14.3 in July and 14.2 in August. He stood alone for a year until another American, Alvin Moreau, matched him at 14.2. Forrest Towns beat the record three times in 1936, although his first effort, 14.1 seconds in June, was aided by a 2.4 kps wind. He ran a legal 14.1 during a preliminary heat at the 1936 Olympics – he went on to win the gold in 14.2 – then lowered the mark to 13.7 on Aug. 27.
Fred Wolcott matched Towns' 13.7 mark in 1941, and the two remained together in the record book for nine years until Dick Attlesey continued the American dynasty by dropping the mark to 13.6 at the U.S. Championships in June of 1950 and then 13.5 in July of the same year. Yet another American, Jack Davis, lowered the record to 13.4 in 1956. West Germany's Martin Lauer interrupted the American dominance briefly, lowering the record to 13.2 in 1959, but the U.S. got back into the books the next year when Lee Calhoun ran a 13.2. The number proved popular over the next 13 years. Three Americans – future pro football player Earl McCullouch, Willie Davenport and Rod Milburn – all posted times of 13.2 seconds between 1967 and 1973, with Milburn turning the trick three times. Milburn’s first record-tying effort earned him the gold medal at the 1972 Olympics and was electrically timed at 13.24. France's Guy Drut, who placed second to Milburn in the 1972 Olympic final, broke the logjam in 1975, dropping the mark to 13.1 in July and 13.0 in August.
Nehemiah Goes Under 13 Seconds
Beginning in 1977, the IAAF changed its policy on world records, requiring fully automatic electronic timing for all 110 hurdles marks. The mark then reverted to Milburn's 1972 Olympic-winning time of 13.24.
Cuba's Alejandro Casanas again interrupted the American reign, running 13.21 at the World University Games in 1977. Two years later, Renaldo Nehemiah brought the record back to the U.S., posting a time of 13.16 in April, 1979 and running 13-flat on May 6. In 1981, Nehemiah busted through the 13-second mark, running 12.93 at the Weltklasse meet in Zurich. Nehemiah owned the record for eight more years until American Roger Kingdom nudged the mark down to 12.92 in 1989, also in Zurich.
United States Out, and Back In
The United States was ousted from the 110 hurdles record book for almost 20 years, beginning in 1993, when Great Britain's Colin Jackson posted a time of 12.91 at the World Championships in Stuttgart. Jackson's record survived for 11 years until China's Liu Xiang matched his time during the 2004 Olympic final. Liu took the record for himself in 2006, bringing the mark down to 12.88 at the Super Grand Prix in Lausanne. Cuba's Dayron Robles ticked the record down to 12.87 at the Golden Spike meet in Ostrava in 2008. Robles’ record survived until 2012, when Aries Merritt won the Diamond League final in Brussels in 12.80 seconds. Merritt is the 27th American to own or share the 110-meter hurdles world record, out of a total of 40 record-holders.