Is the 400m finally catching up?

26 Aug 2015

Michael Johnson asked Ato Boldon to run down and “check the clock” after some sizzling 400m heats, which had two men go under 44 seconds. We don’t blame him, sub-44s don’t come around too often—except for this season. 2015 hasn’t ended but it is already the fastest ever when you look at the average times of the top ten, and four new athletes have gone sub-44 seconds (Van Niekerk, Makwala, Masrahi and McDonald), with James and Merritt still performing at that level.

Average time of the top 10 athletes in each season

The USA, the country that has been so dominant, however, has all their quarter mile hopes on one athlete: Merritt. For two consecutive World Championships the US has only had one athlete in the final and this year just one athlete in the top 10 (Merritt on all counts). This century, US athletes have, on average, taken four out of the top 10 athlete places in the world rankings, even taking seven in 2004. They have been ever-present in World Championship finals, even taking a clean sweep of the medals in Osaka, 2007. It seems strange that the 400m superpower is such a minor presence when the event heats up.

And perhaps that’s it: Nellum’s 44.77 in the semis would have arguably got him into every other World Championships final in the last 15 years. Merritt, one of the greatest quarter milers, ran a personal best—and didn’t win.

The USA will be back, but maybe global competition is what the event needed. As much as we can rejoice in these performances, they are long overdue. Lee Evans and Larry James ran the first sub-44 times at the Mexico Olympics (43.86 and 43.97 respectively, at altitude). Since then, another 12 athletes have done the same. That’s 0.2 a year.
Tommie Smith broke the 20 second barrier for the 200m in the Olympics. Since then, another 53 men have gone under it. That’s 1.15 men a year. More recently the 200m has progressed significantly compared to the 400m. Here is the percentage improvement in the two events across two Olympic cycles (downwards trend = improvement; upwards = regression).

% differences over an Olympic cycle

The Jamaicans led the surge here and the Americans responded. What is exciting for the 400m—other than the times—is that there were eight different nations in the final in Beijing, representing Africa, North America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Europe. This can only be good for the event and the sport, which considers itself global. Let’s hope they can make up for lost time.

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