Largely overlooked in the admiration for, if not astonishment at 19 year old Kirani James’ convincing victory in the 400 metres on Monday evening was the absence in the final of any US one-lapper; for the first time in over a century, indeed since the inaugural modern Olympic Games, in 1896.
That is as cataclysmic a statistic as you are likely to encounter from the athletics at London 2012.
You might think that it is only the recent rise of Jamaican sprinting that has truncated the longest line of US Olympic victories, ie in the men’s 100 metres. But it is the 400 metres where the US men have been most dominant in Olympic history. Even barring the 1980 boycott, US men have won 18 golds, and four times swept the board, ie taken all three medals on no fewer than four occasions; 1968/88, 2004/8.
The injury to Beijing 2008 winner LaShawn Merritt – he pulled up in his heat – contributed to this extraordinary state of affairs. And though it may have been lack of international experience that put paid to the two other team members, Tony McQuay and Bryshon Nellum, they both survived the hothouse experience of the US trials, including shunting 2004 gold medallist Jeremy Wariner back to sixth. Neither of them came through the Olympic semis.
Uncle Sam’s boys will doubtless make a comeback in time for Rio 2016 and beyond, but for the time being it is as gratifying as seeing someone other than an East African winning either 10,000 metres – even if Mo Farah was born there (he left 20 years ago) – to see an Olympic 400 metres contested by representatives of a string of nations whose collective population probably does no rival that of a small US state.
There were two Bahamians, two Belgians, an Aussie, a Trinidadian, a Dominican, and the Grenadian winner. The stunning victory of James was wonderful to behold, the teenager being the veritable personification of the irresistible force.
After ambushing his rivals, he ambushed the press conference. But he did it, at least the latter, with such command and courtesy that it was like being held up by a gentleman highwayman. James, not yet 20 until September 1, began by thanking everyone from his parents to his coach to his manager to his sponsors for his success, but gave the impression of being a young man who knows exactly what he wants for and from himself.
And winning an Olympic gold at 19, to go with a World title won last year is a pretty good way to set the ball rolling. On a night of Olympic wonder for the smaller Caribbean nations – Felix Sanchez of the Dominican Republic won gold in the quarter hurdles, his 18 year old colleague Luguelin Santos won silver behind James, while Trinidadian Lalonde Gordon won bronze – James won Grenada’s first Olympic medal, a gold.
James clocked 43.94sec, and even to an eye such as that of your correspondent, untutored in the mysteries of coaching and technique, it seems obvious that James is far from being the finished product as a 400 metres runner; so I was glad to hear that no less an authority than one Michael Johnson had said that when James has ironed out the flaws in his technique, then his, MiJo’s world record (43.18sec) might be in danger.
Unsurprisingly this speculation was mentioned at the press conference. James was in cruise control. “It just shows I’m on the right track, if my name is mentioned in the same sentence as Michael Johnson. I’m on the right track and I’m doing some great things. Michael Johnson was huge, and did a lot for the sport with everything he achieved. Everyone wants to reach that level. But I’m focused on what I want to do, just trying to be myself, not Michael Johnson. If I try to be Michael Johnson, every time I fail, it’ll be a disappointment. I’m just trying to represent my country to the best of my ability”.
James hails from the fishing village of Gouyave in Grenada, and having been inundated with US scholarship offers following even more youthful exploits, he chose two years ago to go to the University of Alabama, which state is of course the birthplace and home of the immortal JC (Jesse) Owens. James is coached by Harvey Glance and managed by Reinaldo Nehemiah, two former sprint luminaries of the track world.
“Just being around the right people is a big help to me,” said James, “they don’t just help me become a better athlete, they help me become a better person. He also emphasised that Alleyne Francique (who won two World indoor titles for Grenada at the start of the century) was a pathfinder and example for athletes like himself.
After the semi-finals, he had embraced then swapped bib numbers with disabled South African runner, Oscar Pistorius, a gesture that was appreciated by the huge crowd, with a roar of applause. “Oscar is an inspiration to everybody, whether you’re a track athlete or a normal person. Just competing against Oscar is an honour, he a great guy, very down to earth, and I’m just happy to be here, and able to compete against Oscar”.
James had an extraordinarily successful winning progression, taking under-17 titles in the Caribbean from the age of 14. He won 200/400 metres doubles at the World Youth and Pan-Am Junior Champs and the Carifta Games, before settling in as a one lap specialist, winning the World Junior in 2010, then the senior title last year. But he is smart enough to know his limitations, or recognises the danger of falling between two stools. “That’s for the future (the 200m), it’s tough at the moment, way too tough, doing that 200/400 double is very hard.
“I didn’t think about the race much beforehand, I just went out to represent my country as well as I could, and I’m proud of that. And as long as they’re proud of me, I’m happy with that. There’s probably a huge street party going on there right now”.
But you felt that if James himself was at that party, he’d be on the sidelines, taking it all in, and figuring out what the next best move was going to be. Barring accident and injury, Kirani James is going to be one of the biggest things in world athletics. If he isn’t already.
The second part of this article was published on the IAAF website – www.iaaf.org – for which I am contributing two winners’ profiles most days throughout London 2012