Monday, December 7, 2009

The Men's 400, The Next Frontier

IAAF Golden League

Looking back on this season and looking ahead to 2010 the men's 400 has to be the new frontier - at least in sprinting. After all the 100 is pretty much on lock down with Usain Bolt (9.58), Tyson Gay (9.69) and Asafa Powell (9.72) all scheduled to compete in the new Diamond League - with every meet scheduled to have one or more of this troika competing.

There may be a little more leeway in the 200, though I would anticipate that either Bolt (19.19) or Gay (19.58) should be in the majority of serious races out there. In the event there is a meet that doesn't have at least one of these men in a lane its almost given that Wallace Spearmon (19.65) or Shawn Crawford (19.79) will be around to pick up the loose ends! Not to mention the possibility that a healthy Walter Dix (19.69) or rapidly improving Alonso Edwards (19.81) should be competing here next summer.

Leaving, as crazy as it may seem, the 400 as the event where getting to the top could hold some promise! Yes, the two men responsible for the last 5 global championships in the event are still competing - Jeremy Wariner winning in '04.'05, '06, and Lashawn Merritt winning in '08 & '09. But neither is competing in the rarified air that we see Bolt, Gay, and Powell competing in in the shorter sprints!

Wariner was looking to close in on Michael Johnson's 43.18 as he had worked his way to 43.45 in 2007. but a coaching change in '08 found him at 43.82 and the best he could muster in '09 was 44.60. Similarly, though Merritt has taken the mantle from Wariner, and found himself running 43.75 in '08, '09 saw only 44.06 from Merritt. While still enough to keep him in the #1 spot globally, it’s a mark we've seen run as far back as 1968 and one that has been equaled or bettered 64 times in history . And a mark most certainly attainable by the right competitors.

Certainly we are due for an explosion in this event. We first saw the 44 second barrier broken back in 1968 as Lee Evans lowered the WR to 43.86 in Mexico City. Unfortunately we had to wait 20 years to see the 44 second barrier breached once again as Butch Reynolds lowered the WR to 43.29 and 19 year old Steve Lewis won Olympic gold with his WJR 43.87! These two were followed over the next few seasons by Danny Everett (43.81), Quincy Watts (43.50) and Michael Johnson himself, before another 13 year drought saw first Wariner and then Merritt joined the ranks of the 43 second quarter milers.

Considering that since the explosion in the sprints in Mexico City in 1968 (new WR's of 9.95, 19.83, and 43.86) the records in the 100 and 200 have dropped to 9.58 and 19.19, the 400 is well off the pace currently being set by the short sprinters!

Only Merritt was close to the 44 second barrier last season at 44.06. Next best was Reny Quow at 44.53 - half a second behind! So lots of room to challenge for the top. And the potential to become a dominant force for the right 'sprinter". After all, while we tend to think of the sprints as being the 100 and 200, when you start averaging 11.00 sec or better for 4 consecutive 100's you're sprinting!

And therein lies the key, in my opinion, to moving the 400 into the same range as the shorter sprints - bringing more speed to the event! We've seen sprinters move up to this event in the past. After all, before Quincy Watts ran 43.50 and won Olympic gold he was one of the nations best high school sprinters. Injuries forced him to move up - with great success. Similar story with Michael Johnson, as injuries early in his career found him moving from the 100/200 to the 200/400 - especially after several blazing 4x4 legs under 44 seconds indicated he had the ability. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Even now questions abound as to how fast Usain Bolt could potentially run this event. And in the past couple of seasons we have seen speedsters Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay turn in credible early season 400's as part of their "training" for the short sprints - Powell going 45.94 last year and Gay 45.57. And Bolt turned in a 45.27 in '07. With these three dominating the short sprints I don't expect to see either of them give the 400 serious consideration. But it may behoove some of those breathing their exhaust to consider a move up.

For example, we've seen Wallace Spearmon dabble in the 400 and run 45.22 with several very creditable relay legs in the 44 sec range over the past few seasons. High school super sprinter Xavier Carter(10.38, 20.69, 45.44), has continued to do well in all three sprints as a pro with 10.00, 19.63, 44.53 bests, and certainly could become even more competitive in the 400 given focus. For proof, look no further than current #1 Lashawn Merritt who was a triple threat sprinter in high school himself (10.47,20.77,45.25) who has focused on the longer sprints with 19.98, 43.75 results to date!

With the standards in the short sprints falling rapidly, and bronze medals going to what would have been gold medal times just a few years ago, perhaps it will be the search for gold that sends some sprinters to the 400 and not injuries as in the past. After all, you have to be able to run 9.8 low and 19.8 low under pressure now to get close to the podium!

Certainly there are other Michael Johnson's and Quincy Watts' waiting out there. Powerful 200 men like Spearmon and Carter might be better served doubling in the 400 than the 100. Of course the sport could help by making the 400 a more lucrative event. After all, it was a more lucrative move for Bolt to attempt to double in the short sprints than the long sprints - and we've seen the results - even though he had shown 400 acumen as a youth performer.

With the majority of sprint money being tied up in the 100, its easy to understand why so many sprinters continue to try to compete in the event even though they may be more suited to the longer sprints. So perhaps if the shoe companies could create some incentives in the 400 or meet promoters some enticements, we might see the sprint talent disperse itself a bit more "evenly". After all getting more quarter milers into the 43's and watching them breach the 43 second barrier and get into the 42's - which I believe is possible - would be every bit as exciting as what we're seeing in the short sprints!

Professional track is a business, and talented athletes are going to run where the money is best. So if the sport is truly interested in creating more excitement and finding the next Bolt / Gay rivalry, the 400 sits there waiting! Can you imagine a 9.9x/10.0x sprinter seriously making a move up to the 400? Perhaps something akin to what we've seen in the past when the right athlete finds the right event, such as 46.78 in the 400H, 1:41.11 in the 800, or 9.58 in the 100? Maybe something in the 42.50 range?

Financial incentives aside, that is where I think the real rewards would come - being that ground breaking athlete that takes an event to the next level! An Edwin Moses that took the 400 hurdles from obscurity to the spotlight. A Michael Johnson that not only broke the record in the 400 but established new standards of consistency. Because athletes that make that kind of mark reap both financial rewards and establish their place in history!

So perhaps we will soon see a sprinter or two tire of looking at the backs of Bolt and Gay and choose instead to have others looking at their backs! Becoming headline news in their own right, winning gold medals, and setting new standards of excellence in the 400 while blazing a trail to the next frontier in the sprints. The talent is there. All it will take is that leap of faith, and a change in training and some lucky sprinter could become the next Bolt - without having to beat Bolt!

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