With the great one, Usain Bolt, retired, the question surfaces, who will be track and field’s next great superstar, and what will be the marquee event of the Tokyo Olympic Games?
The men’s 400 meters (m) was the only sprint event in athletics at the 2016 Olympics to produce a new world record. The man who set that world record, Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa, promises to be back for this year’s Olympics after a lengthy hiatus due to a severe knee injury, but it isn’t expected to be a cakewalk this time around.
The men’s 400m has evolved. Since that record-breaking Olympics five years ago when van Niekerk stole some of the shine away from Bolt, six men have run under 44 seconds. The men’s 400m final at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics was the fastest in history. Van Niekerk was special with his record-breaking run of 43.03 seconds – breaking American Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record of 43.18 seconds.
Machel Cedenio ran a national record of 44.01 seconds for fourth for Trinidad & Tobago. It was the first time in history that anyone had run that fast in an Olympic final and did not win a medal. All eight men in the Olympic final ran 44.61 seconds or faster.
Since van Niekerk’s run, a number of quarter-milers have come on stream and two have really stood out in recent times.
American Michael Norman and Bahamian Steven Gardiner were the two fastest men in the world in back-to-back years of 2018 and 2019. Norman was the world leader in both years, but it was Gardiner who reigned supreme in Doha, taking the world title at the 17th International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in the Qatari capital after Norman faltered in the event semis.
Norman and Gardiner’s lifetime bests of 43.45 and 43.48 seconds respectively, line them up perfectly to seriously challenge van Niekerk this summer. The world record holder made his return to competitive athletics last year following a 28-month hiatus from a devastating knee injury, and figures to be back in the mix, but the world is yet to see the form that won him three successive global titles in the men’s 400m from 2015-2017.
Van Niekerk’s fastest time since coming back to the track is 45.58 seconds, done at the Galà dei Castelli – Meeting Internazionale di Atletica Leggera in Bellinzona, Switzerland, in September of last year. Norman ran his lifetime best of 43.45 seconds early in 2019, tying for the fourth-fastest of all-time with fellow American Jeremy Wariner. Gardiner ran his national record of 43.48 for the world championships gold in 2019 – becoming the sixth-fastest of all-time.
Even when he was healthy, van Niekerk’s world record time is the only time he ran faster than Norman or Gardiner’s lifetime best.
It’s likely the three could lock horns in the men’s 400m final at this Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. The Olympics will run from July 23 to August 8, and the men’s 400m final is set for the evening session of Thursday August 5.
“I wouldn’t say that it is out of the question that we get another world record (in the men’s 400m),” said legendary sprinter Ato Boldon of Trinidad & Tobago who is now an athletics coach and a lead track and field analyst for NBC Sports while talking with Michael Bascombe of GrenadaSports.
“In 2016, when Machel Cedenio ran a little over 44 at the Olympics and finished fourth, that was the first time in history that anyone ran 44.0-anything and came home with nothing. With the way these young guys are running now, I believe that we might see for the first time in Tokyo, someone running 43 and go home with nothing. Wayde van Niekerk obviously has a lot to prove. Michael Norman is very frustrated at not being able to have a full season over the last couple years. Gardiner is looking for respect because he feels that people are not taking him as seriously as they should. He’s run as fast as Michael Norman, he runs good 200s and he runs good 100s just like the other guys. Kerley (American Fred Kerley) always runs with a chip on his shoulders, and that’s before we talk about Grenada’s Kirani James.
“There are so many guys who are capable of being on that podium, and there are so many guys whose bodies know what 43 feels like. I don’t think that you could not be excited about what is possible in Tokyo. You may run 43.8 or 9 and not be on the podium. That to me is exciting and I think the 400 promises to be one of the best events in the entire Olympics as it was in 2016.”
Former World and Olympic Champion James, of Grenada, finished second behind van Niekerk at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 43.74 seconds. American LaShawn Merritt, a former World and Olympic Champion himself, was third in 43.85 seconds. Cedenio settled for fourth.
American Fred Kerley is another athlete who has come on stream since the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, running sub-44 second times in 2017 and again in 2019. He has a lifetime best of 43.64 seconds and won the bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships behind Gardiner and Anthony Zambrano, of Colombia.
The three favorites for the gold in Tokyo are van Niekerk, Norman and Gardiner though. At 23, Norman is the youngest of the trio. Gardiner is 25 and world record holder van Niekerk is 28.
The men’s 400m promises to be one of the more exciting and thrilling track and field events of the rapidly approaching Tokyo Summer Olympics.