By Zaheer E. Clarke
(Published September 8, 2015, in the Jamaica Observer)
The 400m and the corresponding 4x400m relays have been a beacon of pride for Jamaican Athletics long before Independence. In 1948, in its first participation in the Summer Olympics, Jamaica won gold and silver in the 400m through Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley respectively. In 1952, Jamaica repeated the feat, this time with George Rhoden winning the gold and Herb McKenley once again copping the silver medal. Similarly, in the inaugural 1983 IAAF World Championships, through Bert Cameron, Jamaica won gold in the 400m final.
Nevertheless, Jamaica had early disappointment in the relay version of this event. After qualifying with the second-fastest time behind the Americans heading into the 1948 Olympic final, Jamaica failed to finish the race when Arthur Wint pulled a muscle. Jamaica missed out on a potential medal with the Americans taking the gold.
In redemptive fashion, Jamaica won the gold in the 1952 Olympics, this time beating the Americans, with the same 1948 team of Wint, Leslie Laing, McKenley, and Rhoden. No muscles pulled this time, just the strings of Jamaican’s hearts overjoyed.
Famously, Herb McKenley, then a former world record holder in the flat 400m event, produced a feat on the third leg of the 4x400m that is still doused in Memoriam as one of the greatest legs in relay history. With a deficit of approximately 13m – not the 20-30m exaggerated by storytellers – McKenley running against the 400m hurdles gold medalist, Charles Moore, nibbled into the deficit, “a little at a time,” and handed off to Rhoden a fraction ahead. The 400m world record holder then, Rhoden, though tested, never relented and drove Jamaica home to win the gold medal in world record time.
In 2015, at the IAAF World Championships, the Jamaican quartet of Peter Mathews, Ricardo Chambers, Rusheen McDonald and Javon ‘Donkey Man’ Francis attempted to reduplicate that gold medal run. Unlike at the 1952 Olympics where Jamaica had three representatives in the flat 400m final, at the 2015 World Championships, Jamaica had none. Still, Jamaican fans, track and field analysts, and journalists spoke with a sense of entitlement as if a medal in the 4x400m was theirs to lose.
The boys in the spirit of their forefathers – Wint, Rhoden, Laing, McKenley, and Cameron – quickened their steps in pursuit of gold and glory. Nevertheless, they ran the first three legs 0.86s slower than they did in the semis and left ‘Donkey Man’ the task of overhauling an insurmountable task for gold.
In Moscow at the 2013 World Championships, Francis received the baton fifth, 1.89 seconds (~17m) behind the Americans but only 0.60 seconds (~5m) adrift of the Russians who were in second place. With the Americans miles ahead, Francis flew past the British; the Belgians; and the hometown boys, the Russians, into second place by the 250-metre mark. He held on into the home stretch and with endurance, appropriately of a donkey, held off the inspired Russians before their home fans for the silver medal.
Many Jamaican fans, analysts and journalists were in disbelief since none had predicted a medal in this event, much less one shepherded by such an inspiring run. The causality of the 2012 London Olympics 4x400m relay team, like in 1948, was still fresh in their thoughts. Francis’ run of 44.05s on anchor, then the fourth lifetime best leg by a Jamaican in its storied 4x400m relay history, was celebrated and dubbed by several local pundits as “The Performance of the Championships” from a Jamaican perspective.
This time in Beijing at the 2015 IAAF World Championships, with Francis on anchor – again fifth – and with the Americans in striking distance, he flew past the British; the Belgians; our Caribbean friends, the Trinidadians; and our staunchest rivals, the Americans, into first place by the 250-mark. In 150 metres, he overhauled the 1.33s (~12m) deficit – more than twice that which he faced in the 2013 World Championships. The commentators bellowed over the speakers, “Javon Francis has gone crazy here”, but not me. He did the same thing in 2013 and many hailed the performance when he won silver in surprising fashion.
Likewise to 2013, as he entered the final 100m, though fading, he drove and dove to the line for gold and glory. Francis kept his form together and marched for home with three runners behind him, all boasting superior lifetime bests done this year – two of which transpired at this World Championships.
With no world records or individual medals to his claim, in his own Frank Abagnale version, Javon told those behind him to “Catch Me If You Can” in a repeat of 2013. Unfortunately, they did. However, his heart cannot be questioned, neither his strategy in unbreakable odds.
Javon and Jamaica missed out on a bronze medal by four thousandths of a second (0.004s). To be honest, if it wasn’t for Javon’s heroic run we wouldn’t have been that close. Unlike Novlene Williams-Mills who had about 0.48s (~4m) to make up for gold in the women equivalent, Javon’s and Jamaica’s deficit was a lifetime in present day 400m men’s race. Still, he and the team dreamed the impossible dream.
Javon produced the fastest leg of all 32 competitors in the 4x400m race: 43.52s. It was over half a second faster than his herculean effort in Moscow 2013, and almost a second faster than his personal best (44.50s) in the flat event. To nip him on the line, Britain’s Martyn Rooney had to produce the second fastest anchor leg among the anchor leg runners (43.97s) and the third fastest leg overall among the 32 participants of that race.
Francis’ run was the second fastest 4x400m anchor leg by a Jamaican athlete all-time, only eclipsed by Davian Clarke’s 43.51s at the 1997 World Championships. In addition, only five men have recorded faster lifetime best anchor legs in the history of 4x400m relays: the Americans Michael Johnson (42.94s), Jeremy Wariner (43.10s), and Steve Lewis (43.4s); Bahamian Chris Brown (43.42s); and Jamaican Davian Clarke. Such was the magnitude of his superlative performance.
Javon ‘Donkey Man’ Francis left his all on the track in the final event at the Bird’s Nest. In other countries, including China, performances of such would be heralded, yet many from his homeland have questioned the lion heart of this cheetah and future great of 400m athletics.
Javon, may I remind you, they too questioned Usain Bolt after the 2005 IAAF World Championships and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce after the 2008 Jamaica National Championships. Pretty soon they won’t dare question you. As fans, journalists, and pundits, I have to ask, “Have we assumed an attitude of entitlement, greed and heartlessness?”
Until next time…
© Zaheer Clarke