When Wayde van Niekerk defeated Kirani James at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Paris on 4 July, he did more than upset the form-chart for the 400m.
For the past three years, supremacy in men’s 400m has been a two-man battle between La Shawn Merritt and James – Merritt the established champion, James the precocious young challenger.
James won at the Olympic Games in London, as Merritt broke down in the qualifying rounds with a hamstring injury. James looked to have the edge through 2013, but Merritt came through to win at the World Championships in Moscow and the IAAF Diamond League final.
Until Van Niekerk’s Paris stunner, however, the momentum looked to have swung decisively James’ way. Suddenly, the 400m had a new member of the sub-44-second club – Van Niekerk won in 43.96 – but also a new World Championships gold medal contender.
Van Niekerk’s performance was a South African record and an African record, but the latter was destined to last no more than 24 hours. The following day, at La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland, Botswana’s Isaac Makwala took advantage of the favourable conditions to run 43.72.
Not one contender from Africa – but two.
Now, the question is: can Van Niekerk or Makwala exceed the performances of Ivory Coast’s 1984 Olympic silver medallist Gabriel Tiacoh, Kenya’s 1993 world bronze medallist Samson Kitur and Uganda’s 1997 world silver medallist Davis Kamoga?
If either can do that, it would be the first global title for a male African 400m runner in almost a century. Bevil Rudd won the gold medal for South Africa at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp.
Van Niekerk looks the more likely of the two to do it. The 23-year-old is unbeaten this year over 200m and 400m and on 14 July in Lucerne, he ran 19.94 for 200m, joining Michael Johnson, Merritt and Makwala as the only men to have bettered both 20 seconds for 200m and 44 seconds for 400m.
The South African also looks to have the edge over world leader Makwala, having finished first to Makwala’s fourth at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in London last month.
James has not raced since his second place in Paris, but with a season’s best of 43.95 and a formidable championship record, he remains the favourite, provided he comes to the line healthy.
Merritt remains a threat, running 44.36 in Edmonton at the end of June, but he does not appear to be the force he was in 2013; David Verburg beat him at the US championships.
Olympic silver medallist Luguelin Santos ran his season’s best of 44.56 in winning at the Pan American Games in Toronto last month.
And keep an eye on Trinidad and Tobago’s world junior champion Machel Cedenio and Bahamian record-holder Steven Gardiner, both men precocious talents who only turn 20 next month.
Len Johnson for the IAAF