06 AUG 2012 Feature London, UK

At 19, James grabs first Olympic gold for Grenada

Kirani James of Grenada reacts after he crosses the finish line to win the gold medal in the Men's 400m final on Day 10 of the London 2012 Olympic Games on 6 August 2012 (Getty Images)Kirani James of Grenada reacts after he crosses the finish line to win the gold medal in the Men's 400m final on Day 10 of the London 2012 Olympic Games on 6 August 2012 (Getty Images) © Copyright
London, UKFirst, Kirani James ambushed his rivals in the 400 metres; then 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 43.94, 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, MJ’s World record (43.18) 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 Renaldo 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’s 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.

Pat Butcher for the IAAF