Kirani James all set to defend his 400 metre gold at Rio against a competitive field
It’s not often that you are labeled the pre-race favorite in an Olympic final at the tender age of 19. But such was the magnitude and consistency of his achievements, that for Kirani James, this tag sat comfortably on his broad but young shoulders as he took to the starting blocks in the 400 metre final at London 2012.
He had displayed his prodigious talent by running the fastest 400-metre times for a 14 and 15-year-old. He then went on to win a series of gold medals at the CARIFTA Games and the Commonwealth Youth Games and rose on the international stage with 400 m silver medals at the 2007 World Youth and 2008 World Junior Championships.
James also became the first athlete to run a 200/400 double at the 2009 World Youth Championships and was the 2010 World Junior Champion.
No nerves in the Olympic final
Armed with a world title, which we won in 2011 at Daegu, James was quite the sight on that night in London when, running in the center Lane, he flew down the back straight, emerged from the final bend with a clear lead and increased it before crossing the line in 43.94, a new personal best and national record.
The control he exhibited in the Olympic final was exemplary and he never seemed to tire, not even at the very end of the race, when the lactic acid built up in the muscles start to hurt, along with the burning lungs screaming out for air. Just for the record, this was the first Olympic 400 metre final which had 3 teenagers (including James) and no representation from the USA.
The 2013 World Championships at Moscow loss was a rare blip in the rising graph of this 20-year old’s career. James finished 7th, with a lowly 44.99 seconds.
James was back to winning ways the following year in 2014. In Lausanne, he took his personal best down to 43.74, the fastest time of 2014 and the sixth-quickest of all time, and then beat rising South African star Wayde Van Niekerk to pocket Commonwealth gold in Glasgow.
James dominated and won the Diamond League in 2015, but a surprise awaited him at the Beijing World Championships, as he finished third in the fastest ever 400-metre race, won by South African Wayde Van Niekerk.
Neither James nor defending World Champion Merritt (who took silver) had any answers to the South African’s strong finish. This was the first 400-metre race in which the top 3 ran sub-44 seconds.
Niekerk and Merritt right up there in 2016
James, Merritt, and Niekerk have been very active in the prestigious Diamond league but apart from the Prefontaine Classic, where James beat Merritt the 3 have not raced against each other.
James and Niekerk are unbeaten this year, but this year’s best timing of 43.97 seconds has been clocked by the veteran Le Shawn Merritt. 9 of the top 10 timings have been shared by the big three and Kirani James has four of them to his name. Kirani James victories’ at both the Eugene and Birmingham legs of the IAAF Diamond League, make him a strong contender for gold in Rio and if his Birmingham performance is any indicator, he will be hard to stop.
Apart from the obvious big three, there are Borlee brothers from Belgium, who will always be within striking distance, but the competition doesn’t end there.
Globalisation of the 400 metres over this Olympic cycle
When James won in 2012, silver and bronze went to Luguelin Santos of the Dominican Republic and Lalonde Gordon of Trinidad and Tobago; an impressive result from three small Caribbean islands with a combined population of about 12 million.
What was even more significant was, USA had no representation in that Olympic final, let alone win a medal. At the past 27 editions of Olympic Games, USA has won 44 medals in the men’s 400m, 20 of them gold. Not counting the US-boycotted Games of 1980, the last time an Olympic men’s 400m podium had no US athlete on it was back in 1920.
The veteran Shawn Merritt, is the only American to have a top ten timing this year, as the Caribbean islands have 5 top ten timings, Africa has 2 and surprisingly Asia has 2 entries in this elite list.
This diversity in the top rankings seems to indicate a better understanding of the event by more countries, along with the improvement of infrastructure.
Back to the Olympic champion
Four years ago when he put the small Caribbean island of Grenada on the world athletics map, the greatest one-lap runner of all times, Micheal Johnson had said:
QUOTE’ “He can go much faster than this, no doubt about it, because his technique is not that great. I am sure he will have my world record (43.18) in his sights. He is tremendously talented and has many years to learn about this event. He is already very mature and I would expect him to continue to improve.”UNQUOTE.
Well, the Rio Olympics are almost at James’ doorstep..and no better place to show the great Johnson and the World of Athletics just how much he has improved.