For West German athletes who had missed out on the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, due their government and National Olympic Committee boycotting the event, the Athens 1982 European Athletics Championships offered a chance to show what the world had missed and Harald Schmid took full advantage of the opportunity.
Schmid, just a couple of weeks shy of his 25th birthday later in September, arrived in Athens confident of his form despite having been struggling with some minor injuries since the previous year which had caused some in the German media to question whether he could defend his continental crown from Prague four years earlier.
However, he showed everyone he was in fine fettle after breezing through the first round in the gleaming and recently-opened Olympic Stadium, winning his heat in an impressive 49.27. The following evening he won his semifinal in a slightly more restrained 49.84 but still looked supremely comfortable in doing so.
With two good races behind him and no noticeable reaction, Schmid calmly lined up in lane four at 20.45 on a balmy late summer evening in the Greek capital on 8 September and almost as soon as the gun fired it seemed like there would be no other winner.
He rocketed out of his blocks and was already fractionally ahead at the first hurdle, never to be headed.
It took little more than two barriers for him to pass Sweden’s Sven Nylander immediately to his outside, and Nylander was having the race of his life, finishing seventh in a national record of 49.64 before progressing to take medals at the next three editions of the European Athletics Championships.
After a flying second 100 metres down the back straight, coming off the sixth hurdle Schmid had made up the stagger on everyone outside him, including the man thought to be his biggest danger, East Germany’s Uwe Ackermann.
He powered around the second bend and down the home straight, never touching the brakes despite switching from 13 strides for the first eight hurdles to 14 for the final pair of barriers, and crossed the line in a European and championship record of 47.48, at the time the second fastest performance in history.
He took 0.37 off his own European record of 47.85 he had set in Turin at the 1979 European Cup and more than a second off his championship record of 48.51 set when winning his first of three individual European titles in 1978.
Schmid finished around 10 metres clear in Athens of his nearest rival, USSR’s Alexandr Yatsevich, who had prevailed in a four-way battle for the minor medals and taken second place in 48.60 with Ackermann just 0.04 further back in third.
Schmid’s gaping winning margin of 1.12 seconds is the biggest ever in championship history and the time remains the championship record despite his two successors as European record-holders, France’s Stephane Diagana and Norway’s Karsten Warholm, coming within two-tenths of his time respectively at the 2002 and 2018 editions of the championships.
“Even though I was to go on and win a third European title in front of my home crowd in Stuttgart four years later, and I was to equal my European record at the 1987 World Championships in Rome, I remember Athens very well, especially the good weather and relaxed atmosphere,” reflected Schmid recently.
“Looking back, I would say that when I won the 1982 European Championships in Athens it was the most special moment of my career. I had been struggling with injuries the year before. Some people thought that I wouldn’t be able that to perform well but I proved them wrong and came home with a new European record. It was an emotional explosion, speaking years later, it still feels just like yesterday.”
Schmid wasn’t finished in Athens either after his superb hurdles victory.
He returned to the track two days later and ran the second leg in West Germany’s quartet that qualified from its 4x400m heat and then on the penultimate day of the championships, 11 September, fulfilled that role once more in the final as the West Germans duelled with Great Britain and USSR all the way to the line but triumphed in a championship record of 3:00.51, just 0.05 shy of the European record.
Schmid, in most athletics fans’ opinion, is probably the greatest 400m hurdler never to win a global title but on a continental stage his career featured records and gold medals galore.