With the craziness of the World Championships this past year, this review really could just be a summary of Beijing. In fact, it could just focus on the heats and the final quite frankly. Obviously, there was some action going on before the World Championships, but you couldn’t really predict one of the most remarkable rounds in the history of any major athletics championships beforehand.
THE ESTABLISHED CHAMPIONS
The 400 metres has been an event that has been dominated by two men in the last few years. The 2011 World Champion and reigning Olympic Champion Kirani James and 2008 Olympic Champion and two-time World Champion LaShawn Merritt. It was expected that it would be those two going for the top of the podium again but the South African Wade van Niekerk had different ideas.
The warning signs had come at the Paris Diamond League event. James and van Niekerk were leading into the home straight and you could be forgiven in thinking that James would just pull away to take the win. However, van Niekerk showed impressive strength to hold off the Olympic Champion and take the win in an impressive 43.96 seconds, an African record (for the time being).
As always, there would be others who would be expected to be up there, but not many who would be thought to be amongst the medals. There is the curious case of Isaac Makwala from Botswana who runs exceptionally quick times at the time-friendly La Chaux-de-Fonds but hadn’t yet made the same impact at the major global championships. Last year for example, he ran 44.01 at the same venue but did not even make the Commonwealth final. In fairness, he did win the African Championships in a fairly quick 44.23 seconds. This year he ran 43.72 seconds once more at La Chaux-de-Fonds to be ranked number one going into the championships. There was the Pan-American Champion and former world medallist in Luguelin Santon and the 19 year old silver medallist in Machel Cedenio. All in all though, the times were not especially explosive after the main contenders. That would change in Beijing drastically!
THE CRAZIEST HEATS EVER!
Fast forward to the World Championships and the heats of the men’s 400m and it would be arguably the most impressive opening rounds in major championship history. To sum it up, there were 18 sub 45 second runs, including two sub 44 second runs (which were unsurprisingly PB’s). One area record, a further 4 national records as well as 5 other PB’s. The slowest qualifier was 45.08 seconds, and the likes of European Indoor Champion Pavel Maslak went out running 45.16 seconds (the only one of his heat to finish and not qualify). The quickest of the fastest losers was Martyn Rooney who’s PB of 44.45 which was good enough to be a top 3 in any other heat. It was so incredible, you legitimately wondered if the track was actually 390m rather than the full 400m.
Would these times continue in the semi-finals? Predictably, many who had run super quick in the heats struggled in the semi’s. Most notably, Rusheen Macdonald who had run one of the sub 44 second runs in the heats could only 44.86 in the semi’s and was eliminated (unfortunately not the last time he would not get it right at these championships). Kirani James and Santos qualified from the the first semi, with Santos running a new national record, Makwala (who did some push ups after he won) and Masrahi (who ran the other sub 43 second run in the heats) from the second and Van Niekerk and reigning Champion Merritt from the third. Making it through as fastest losers were Cedenio and Rabah Yousif of Britain who ran a big PB to make it through.
A NEW CHAMPION CROWNED
If the semi’s disappointed a tad after the times recorded in the heat, the final looked sure to be historic, with the real possibility of all the medallists having to run under 44 seconds. The race was focused between the big 3 of James, Van Niekerk and Merritt as well as Makwala and Santos. Makwala went off super quickly and was in contention with 100 metres to go but faded away while Santos finished well but was never really in contention with the other 3. It was the South African who had the advantage going into the final stages and showed impressive grit and determination to cross the line first ahead of Merritt and then James. The times were world class. Van Niekerk ran another new African record of 43.48 seconds which made him the 4th quickest of all time and the fastest non-American. Lashawn Merritt ran a new PB of 43.65 seconds to become the 6th fastest of all time whilst the Olympic Champion James ran 43.78 seconds which was just outside his PB to take the Bronze medal.
An amazing race to finish an incredible series of competition in the men’s 400m with a new name to break up the James/Merritt duopoly that had developed the last few years. Van Niekerk was physically spent and even had to go to hospital although was released fairly quickly. All the medallists ran under 44 seconds, and Santos even managed to run another national record of 44.11 seconds. If Rio is half as good as Beijing was, this will be another race to savour next year.
Until next time!