Sounds like directions in a math class, but I’m actually talking about the 400 meters and the World Championships.
Since the beginning of the World Championships in 1983, the men’s 400 has seen some very dominant athletes. From initial champion Bert Cameron; through Michael Johnson’s reign from 1993 thru 1999; and the dual reign of Jeremy Wariner & Lashawn Merritt from 2005 thru 2009 this has been an event with little to wonder about as far as who would be standing on the podium. Except in years ending in the number “1”! Because. for some reason, “1” is not only the loneliest number, it also seems to signify a changing of the guard in the 400 – at least for a year.
In spite of seeing the first sub44 quarter milers in 20 years emerge in the late 80’s (Butch Reynolds, Steve Lewis & Danny Everett), and five others find their way under 44.40, the year 1991 found itself with several injured and sub par athletes. List leader Michael Johnson (44.17) had not yet made the full move to the 400 and only ran the 200 in Tokyo. Sub 44 sprinters Butch Reynolds and Steve Lewis were injured and Danny Everett only had a best of 44.42 for the year. Leaving the door open for Antonio Pettigrew to step thru with a 44.57 victory. The slowest winning time for ten years – until the 2001 World Championships!
From 1993 thru 1999 Michael Johnson – who had moved up to the 400 full time – dominated the World Championships winning all but one in a time under 44 seconds (“only” 44.12 in Athens ‘97). His retirement after the 2000 Olympics once again opened the door to the 400. It was assumed by many that perhaps Tyree Washington or one of the Harrison twins would be heir apparent. But Washington decided to try his hand at professional football and the Harrison’s went back into their non Olympic year funks – leaving an aging Pettigrew as America’s top talent in Edmonton. The door once again ajar, saw Bahamian Avard Moncur take gold in 44.64 – only 1983’s 45.05 being slower among World Championships victories.
The event continued in a state of flux for the next two seasons, with Leonard Byrd (44.45) the ‘02 list leader and Tyree Washington returning to the sport to lead the clock in ‘03 at 44.33. But in ‘04 the event found it’s legs again with the rise of Jeremy Wariner to the podium in Athens. In ‘06 Lashawn Merritt found his form, and between the two of them have won everything in site from ‘04 up thru the last World Championships in ‘09.
But once again we are in a year ending in “1” – and once again the event is in a state of flux. Merritt has yet to be seen on the track as he is returning from a suspension. The defending champion from Berlin, his form is unknown and we won’t see him until weeks before the big dance. Berlin runner up (and the winner in Helsinki and Osaka) Jeremy Wariner’s form has been on display – and it’s not been up to standard. His season’s best is only 44.88 and he’s lost 4 of his last 5 races – including the national title to collegian Tony McQuay. In addition, last year’s rising quarter miler, Jamaica’s Jermaine Gonzalez, didn’t make the Jamaican team. And the event hasn’t seen a sub 44 since Lashawn Merritt’s win in Lausanne in 2008! This door isn’t ajar, it’s WIDE open.
So, who will walk through the door and claim the title this year? Frankly it’s anyone’s best guess. In my opinion the prime candidates are – in no particular order:
Tony McQuay (USA)
McQuay’s season started with injury indoors, delaying his outdoor debut. After a 46.34 seasonal debut in early May and a 2nd place at the SEC’s, he PR’d at the NCAA Championships (44.87) before taking a close second in the final. He improved both his placing and PR with a 44.68 win at the U.S. Trials for Daegu, and is currently #2 in the world on the clock. This will be his first international competition but he has run PR’s in 3 of his last 5 races (including heats and finals) and looks very strong in the stretch. The one thing that seems to be in his favor this year is his freshness, and so far he has not competed since Nationals.
Kevin Borlee (BEL)
Borlee is also a young talent – one who at 23 years of age has a lot of international experience. Borlee won in Madrid with a PR 44.74 after taking second in Lausanne. His previous best was run in the rounds at the Beijing Olympics when he ran 44.88 in his semi. He’s been a relay staple for Belgium over the past several years contributing a 45.34 leadoff in Beijing and a 44.66 last year in Split. He’s coming off a 2010 season that saw him run very consistently with six races between 45.01 and 45.32, and if his recent form is any indication should be in the range that it could take to medal in this years race.
Kirani James (GRN)
While his countryman Rondell Bartholomew is the current list leader (44.65) it is James with the pedigree. James set a WJR indoors this year at 44.80, and sits at #7 on the current outdoor list at 44.86 – an Area Junior Record. He was the World Junior Champion in this event in 2010, and the World Youth Champion in 2009. He won this year’s NCAA Championships ahead of Tony McQuay, and one only has to watch him run to see the strength and power that he possesses in the home stretch. By the way, the kid won’t turn 19 until after the World Championships. And like McQuay he will have fresh legs in Daegu with only seven races under his belt (including rounds) and he hasn’t competed yet in Europe.
Jeremy Wariner (USA)
To completely count Jeremy out would be blasphemy. It’s not like his SB is 45.50, though 44.88 is a long way from his PR of 43.45. My issue with Jeremy isn’t just that he’s lost races, it HOW he’s lost them. His rhythm in the second turn is gone. His strength in the stretch has been missing. That said, he’s been here before as has his coach (Clyde Hart) and if anyone can “fix” this they can – if there is something that can be fixed. Wariner has been a champion too many time to count him out until he’s been knocked out. But I do hate seeing him up against the ropes.
Lashawn Merritt (USA)
The “X” factor this year – because I have no idea what his form is. I know that many want to immediately grant him gold. But after a two year layoff and not being able to compete until four weeks until the start of Worlds, it doesn’t leave him much time to get sharp. The good news for him, is that this is a year ending in “1” and the event is wide open right now. Anything near 45.00 or better in his debut and he moves to the head of the class in my book. If he’s struggles to break 46 that’s a different conversation.
There’s still a month and a half to go, so there’s time for just about anyone to emerge. But it is interesting that “1” seems to be a turning point in this event – unless of course Merritt or Wariner wins in which case status quo will remain intact. And THAT will be the story of this event come mid August. Does it become the year that breaks the “!” mold and maintain the previous status quo; or will 2011 once again signal a changing of the guard in the 400? It’s going to be an interesting race.