Martin Manley winning the 400m at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games (Getty Images) © Copyright
Feature Nanjing, China

Youth Olympic gold saves Manley from turning his back on the 400m

When Martin Manley settled down in the blocks for the 2014 Youth Olympic Games boys’ 400m final inside a steaming hot Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre Stadium, he did so with the thought that it could be the last one-lap race of his life.

If this seems an unlikely thought for an athlete who only last year stormed to the world youth title and this year recorded 46.24 – the second-fastest time in the world this year for a youth – then you would be right.  

Yet the 17-year-old Jamaican sets very high standards.

He was disillusioned he could not match the 45.89 time he recorded when taking the world youth crown in Ukraine, and he was gutted to underperform at last month’s World Junior Championships and exit the 400m at the semi-final stage.

“It was really frustrating, because I was not running the times I had hoped for or expected,” said Manley.

“Every time I tried to run (the 400m) I fell off the times I wanted by one or two seconds. If I had lost (at the Youth Olympic Games) I would have switched to the 200m. I think that would be a good event for me.”

However, the termination of his fledgling 400m career has not transpired, at least not yet.

Running in the blistering late morning heat in eastern China, he stopped the clock in 46.31. Manley’s 400m career was back on track.

“This has lifted a lot of pressure on me,” he said. “It settles me knowing that I’ve still got it. It eases the bittersweet season.

“The test of being a true champion is how you come back from a knockdown,” he added. “The Youth Olympics has eased my frustration.”

Raised in the town of Portmore in the St Catherine parish on the Caribbean island noted for its speed, in some respects Manley – a student at the famed St Jago High School – is the accidental 400m runner.

A 100m and 200m specialist in his younger days, as his grades at school dropped, his mother insisted he quit track to focus on his studies.

For three months he did not run a step until his coach, Danny Hawthorne, a former mentor to Yohan Blake, approached Manley’s mother in an effort to persuade her to grant her son the chance to give track another try.

She agreed and, in his very first session back, Hawthorne suggested a change of focus for Manley.

“It was a hill training day and he (Hawthorne) looked at me and said, ‘you remind me of Bert Cameron (the 1983 world 400m champion and a former St Jago student), so why don’t you try the 400m?’

“I said I didn’t want to because listening to others talk about it (the event), it was just a total turn off,” said Manley.

Yet Hawthorne persisted, Manley relented and in early 2012 he made his 400m debut, running 52.4. Within weeks, he had dipped below 50 seconds.

Last season the progress was staggering, culminating in his global triumph in Donetsk, Ukraine, last summer. His 400m mark at the IAAF World Youth Championships has only been bettered by only one Jamaican youth in history, a certain Usain Bolt.

This year may have had its frustrations on the track, but off it he is also had to cope with tragedy.

His school friend Cavahn McKenzie tragically collapsed and died in February after finishing a race at the NACAC Cross Country Championships in Tobago. In remembrance of his friend, Manley scrawled his name across his bib in Nanjing.

Turning to the future, he still has one more goal in age-group athletics: to go one step better than his idol, the Olympic 400m champion Kirani James, and win at the 2016 World Junior Championships in Kazan.

“Kirani won the world junior and world youth title but never the Youth Olympics," he said, appearing to be an astute student of his event’s history. "If I’m lucky enough to win the World Junior title (in 2016) I will be the first (400m runner) to win all three."

Steve Landells for the IAAF