When the modern Olympic Games were revived in Athens in 1896 the host nation’s competitors were all male and were also singularly successful. The revival of the Olympic tradition by the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Courbetin was an important development for Greek national pride and culture, however as the years passed Greek sport failed to capitalise on their ancient Olympic heritage in the modern era’s games. After winning ten golds in Athens 1896, the next 96 years only brought another three gold medals to Greek Olympians. For a country that had given birth to the Olympics it was a disappointing history. So it was in Barcelona, on the 6th August 1992 that Paraskevi ‘Voula’ Patoulidou carried the weight of her country’s Olympic tradition and the relative failures of preceding Greek athletes into a final of the 10 metres hurdles, and to the surprise of everyone including herself brought Olympic glory back to the home of the games.
In the months leading up to the Barcelona Summer Games the leading contenders for the 100 metres hurdles were American sprint queen Gail Devers, Russian world champion Lyudmila Narozhilenko and the 1988 Seoul gold medallist from Bulgaria, Yordanka Donkova. Donkova held the world record (12.21 seconds), whilst Devers had run 12.63 seconds at the 1991 Tokyo IAAF world championships (coming second behind Narozhilenko who won gold with a time of 12.59 seconds). Devers was also an exceedingly well accomplished 100 metres sprinter and was expected to medal on the flat in the Montjuic Stadium as well. A victim of Graves disease who had almost had to have both feet amputated, Devers was nominally much quicker than Patoulidou. ‘Voula’ had run a time of 13.41 at the 1991 track and field world championships, and hadn’t progressed into the final where Narozhilenko and Devers excelled. Also recording 11.51 for the flat 100 metres (0.22 seconds behind Dever’s best time for that year) Patoulidou would in almost all circumstances been discarded as a medal threat. But of course the Olympic Games can bring out the best in the most unexpected of circumstances, and for a Greek athlete the burden of Olympic history can also become a launching pad.
The Barcelona Summer Games track and field program began on July 31st 1992, and on the second day of events Gail Devers gave her 100 metres hurdles competitors food for thought with her gold medal victory in the 100 metres sprint. In a closely fought battle Devers had beaten her more favoured team mate Gwen Torrence and the Jamaican Juliet Cuthbert in an incredibly tight final. Voula Patoulidou on the other hand hadn’t even started in the heats, therefore giving no one an indication of her current track speed. Devers was in rare form, and she was ready for more gold in Barcelona.
In the heats of the 100 metres hurdles Dever’s set the fastest time, running 13.19 seconds, with Donkova running 12.96 and Narozhilenko 13.04. LaVonna Martin, an American team mate of Devers was the fastest into the quarter finals with 12.82 seconds whilst Patoulidou came fourth in her heat with a time of 13.14. Then in the quarter finals LaVonna Martin kept pace with her initial time, with Devers dramatically improving to 12.76 and Donkova third fastest into the semi-finals with 12.84. Again Patoulidou qualified into the next round of the 100 metres, but her time wasn’t as impressive as the leading contenders.
In the semi finals disaster hit the campaign of the world champion Narozhilenko when she strained a hamstring, thus unable to compete she failed to progress to the final. Devers was in the slower of the two semi races and qualified for the final in 13.14. In the second semi the most consistent performer of the earlier rounds LaVonna Martin won with 12.81 seconds, Donkova came second with 12.87 and then in a significant improvement Patoulidou was third in 12.88. For the first time in Olympic history a female athlete from Greece had qualified for a final.
The line up for the final featured three Americans, two Cubans, one Ukrainian, the Bulgarian world champion and Paraskevi Patoulidou from Greece. Devers had experienced some foot numbness in the final of the 100 metres, but she was in fine condition for this, her second chance for Barcelona gold. She was in lane two, Patoulidou in lane five and Donkova in lane six. The eight finalists took their marks at the start, were given the command to get set, and then with the firing of the starter’s gun the hurdlers began their race for gold.
By the third hurdle Devers was in a leading position, whilst next to her in lane three Lynda Tolbert (USA) was also up towards the front. Donkova had a slow start but was starting to move up, whilst Patoulidou was in the middle of the field. Devers continued to build momentum with every hurdle, and she was literally shooting ahead of her nearest rival Tolbert at the seventh hurdle. Importantly for Patoulidou the Bulgarian world record holder had not distanced herself from the Greek, and in fact Voula was within range of a bronze or silver medal at this stage. At the ninth hurdle Patoulidou surged into second place with Tolbert fading and Donkova not matching, whilst Devers was hurtling towards her second gold medal.
The distance between the ninth and tenth hurdle was 9 metres, and then from that last hurdle it was another 9 metres to the finish line. Devers’ speed was impressive but at some point in the penultimate gap between hurdles her rhythm faltered. Without any slowing down her lead foot smashed into the last hurdle, bringing her crashing down and instantly wiping out her lead. Patoulidou in the middle of the field was hurdling smoothly and with a slight lead over the improving LaVonna Martin in lane four the Greek athlete surged towards the finish. In lane two Devers rolled and tumbled over the line, but her fall had taken away her opportunity for gold, dropping her back to fifth. The field breasted the line and in one of the most amazing results of any Olympics the unheralded Paraskevi Patoulidou took the gold medal. Martin took the silver and Donkova took the bronze.
Whilst the crestfallen Devers rose and then walked further down the track clapping the athlete’s efforts a totally stunned Patoulidou first knelt in surprise at her time and position as it was flashed on the electronic scoreboard. Then she ran back to the stands behind the starting line, grabbing the blue and white Greek flag, calling out for her husband Dimitris. Later she was asked if she found him; “No,” she said. “I think he is somewhere alone, and he is crying.” She also remarked upon what she thought of her competitors; “I wanted to beat the Americans, because they think they are invincible,” Patoulidou said. “But I really thought I would finish third. I won’t be sleeping tonight.”
Patoulidou had run 12.64 for the 100 metres hurdles, her best time by 0.32 seconds. She had achieved something no one including herself had expected. ‘Voula’ had won the first Greek Olympic gold medal since 1980, the first Greek track gold medal since 1912, and the first gold medal for a Greek female Olympian ever. Her success at the Barcelona Olympics was an utter suprise, and both the manner in which she won and which Devers lost her chance, plus the importance for Greek Olympic history of Patoulidou’s victory made this moment one of the greatest of all in recent Summer Games history. It could be argued that the amazing victory of Voula began a Greek renaissance in Olympic sport, which in turn saw Greece win six gold medals in the return of the Olympics to Athens in 2004. Patoulidou was the heroine of a new Greek Olympic legend.