Does the 400m now belong to Africa?

8 Aug 2017

There will be one US athlete in men’s 400m final this evening—and he, Fred Kerley, only managed it by virtue of a fastest loser spot. This is not typical for the pre-eminent quarter-miler nation: there have been 45 world championships medals awarded in the men’s 400m to date and the US has taken the majority (53%) of them. There was a clean sweep in Osaka 2001, too. A race once dominated by the US is starting to open up.

Isaac Makwala went so far to say that Africa is becoming for the dominate force: “We want to take this 400 to Africa. It was an American race but now we are taking it to Africa.” (Whether Makwala will line up tonight is still in question. He didn’t turn up for his 200m heat on Monday, citing food poisoning.) Is he right? African athletes have definitely broken into higher sections of the all-time lists that were once a parade of American flags and now owns the world record.

Take this chart which plots the average time of the best two athletes each year by continent, with a separate line for the US. From 2001-02 there’s a competitive mix, but then the US dominates between 2003-2009 (even with a big drop in times it’s still the best). This is the era of Tyree Washington, Jeremy Wariner and the rise of LaShawn Merritt.

Average time of best two 400m athletes

2001-17, USA and by continent. North America excludes US athletes

In 2013, Africa hits rock bottom with a 45.6 average time. It then mixes with the best in 2014 and straight to the top in 2015, with van Niekerk’s breakthrough performance in Beijing 43.48 and a kicker from Makwala (43.72). This form was maintained into 2016, where van Niekerk’s world record (43.03) was backed up by Botwana’s Baboloki Thebe’s 44.22.

Impressive as this is, it seems to be the rest of North America (mainly Caribbean nations) that has undermined the dominance of the US—a pattern that can be seen across all the sprint events. In the chart you can see its steady progress, rather than the sharp uptick from Africa.

Looking at the composition of the top 10 (this time including the US in North America), Africa has made progress but the the 400m is still an event dominated by North America, even if it’s not just the US anymore. In fact, Africa seems to be squeezing Europe out of the top places. There is no European in this evening’s final. It’s clear in the first chart that the times of the best Europeans have stagnated and they are struggling to compete at the highest level. The men’s 400m may not be an African race yet, but it’s definitely looking less European.

Number of top 10 athletes by continent

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