By Zaheer E. Clarke
Published June 20, 2016
Though Usain Bolt won’t feature in the Men’s 400m race, it is the race that everyone should see at the 2016 Rio Olympics. A mindboggling sub-43 second, world record and/or an Olympic record run are all possible.
The 2016 Rio Olympics is a mere 47 days away and unfortunately, the buzz in the track and field world is about doping and the retests of samples from the 2008 and the 2012 Olympics. There’s hardly any mention of the potential legendary and Herculean performances of the athletes.
The blue riband event of every Olympics is the 100m event which knights its latest winner as the “fastest man in the world”. Usain Bolt has had a stranglehold on this title ceremoniously now for eight years and based on last week’s performance at the Racers Grand Prix there is no sign that he’ll relinquish it. The signs are more in line for him to add to his legend status and the fans and experts are all whispering about the potential world and Olympic records.
Unsurprisingly, the event which has me whispering about a potential world and/or Olympic record, and is the blue riband event, for me, at this year’s Olympics is the Men’s 400m race. This was the marquee race last year, behind the 100m, at the World Championships in Beijing, China. However, I think this year it will overtake the 100m in terms of competitiveness and fan anticipation. Not many persons believe that Justin Gatlin or anyone else can beat Bolt and second place is a mere formality in their eyes. However, over the 400m, the champion is not a foregone conclusion.
Last year, we saw some of the quickest times in recent years in the 400m and this year the expectation is no different. Many experts predict a stampede towards the world record of 43.18s this year at the Olympics and the expectation is that Kirani James, Wayde Van Niekerk, and LaShawn Merritt will push each other until one or more eclipse that mark, and I wouldn’t be surprised. Last year, all three ran sub-44 seconds in the 400m World Championship final, a first by three runners in a major final or any 400m race, with van Niekerk upsetting the experts to claim the gold medal and his first World title. However, I wasn’t surprised. I had predicted it.
Van Niekerk was on a tear last year and after beating James in Paris before the World Championships, I made my bet known as to who will be the 2015 World Champion: “Van the Man”. At the Commonwealth Games in 2014, van Niekerk watched as James galloped away to claim the Commonwealth title. And many forget that it was van Niekerk, who came home second in that race. With his form early in the season last year, and his relative jog through the early rounds at the World Championships, the prediction was simple.
In previous years at the Olympics and the World Championships, the battle was between James and Merritt, and before them, Merritt and Jeremy Wariner. This year the battle eyes may be affixed on van Niekerk, James, and Merritt. However, track and field experts would be remiss if they neglect to look out for Trinidad and Tobago’s Machel Cedenio, Botswana’s Isaac Makawal and Baboloki Thebe, Dominica Republic’s Luguelín Santos and Bahamian Steven Gardiner. The field is that deep.
If all of them reach the 400m final, then we might just see the first athlete to dip below 43 seconds in the flat event. It’s not an easy feat. Actually, only one athlete in history has ever covered the 400m in less than 43 seconds. That distinction is reserved for world record holder Michael Johnson, who ran 42.94 seconds from a running start on the anchor leg in the world record 4 × 400m race at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany.
Breaking Michael Johnson’s record of 43.18s and even going sub-43 seconds is a monstrous feat of superhuman effort. At this point in their careers, my money would be on van Niekerk to do it. He is the first runner in history to collectively run sub-10 seconds over the 100m, sub-20 seconds over the 200m and sub-44 seconds over the 400m. Interestingly, last week, he narrowly missed out on adding to his collection by going sub-31 seconds over 300m. He ran 31.03 seconds at the Racers Grand Prix this month, eclipsing Merritt for third best all time with Johnson and Bolt, legends and multiple world record holders over various disciplines, ahead of him.
Van Niekerk has raw speed, which Bolt has attested to after the pair trained in Jamaica together leading up to the Racers Grand Prix two Saturdays ago. Bolt remarked after their first training session, “He has some speed. I must say, he does have some speed.”
Albeit, his speed is not a surprise. During his personal best 400m-run of 43.48s at the 2015 World Championships, Van Niekerk reportedly ran the fastest first 200m and 300m ever recorded in a 400m race. Unfortunately, when he got to the 400m line he slipped off his world record pace and was ranked as the fourth fastest man over 400m.
Merritt is in the form of his life at 29 years old and has run his personal bests in the 200m (19.78s), 300m (31.23s) and the 400m (43.65s) in the past 10 months. His run of 43.65 seconds in the final of the 400m at last year’s World Championships has him ranked as the sixth fastest man over the distance. Kirani is ranked eighth all-time at 43.74s and narrowly missed out on improving his personal best mark when he ran 43.78s in the World Championship finals last year. This year so far he has beaten Merritt and he too seems to be in the form of his life.
If van Niekerk can improve his speed endurance and limit his losses in the last 100m, and Merritt can improve the middle of his race and Kirani can improve his first 100, Michael Johnson’s 400m record of 43.18s and even sub-43 seconds will be under triple threat.
Let it not be said that you were not forewarned by Track and Field’s Nostradamus.
Until next time…
© Zaheer Clarke
Zaheer E. Clarke is a freelance sportswriter who believes he can beat Usain Bolt over 100m if he loses 30 lbs and is given a 9.58s head start.