Wayde van Niekerk wins the 400m at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015 (Getty Images) © Copyright
Feature Beijing, China

Michael Johnson: the last of the ‘old’ men

When it comes to the 400m, Michael Johnson is special in so many ways.

The fastest man ever, with a world record set in a World Championships final now 16 years old; the oldest ever Olympic 400m champion at age 33 years and 12 days in Sydney in 2000; another Olympic title to his name and four world titles. It all gives Johnson more than enough claim to all-time great status.

Looking at the trend in the 400m in recent times, it is possible Johnson might be special in another way. Will he be the last ‘old’ man to win a world or Olympic 400m title?

When Wayde van Niekerk powered home in the Bird’s Nest on Wednesday night, he was, at just five weeks or so past his 23rd birthday, one of the older athletes in the field. He is a couple of months older than bronze medallist Kirani James, who has already ruled the world of 400m running for a few years.

Luguelin Santos, fourth in a Dominican Republic record, does not turn 22 until November of this year and is already an Olympic silver medallist and a World Championships bronze medallist. Trinidad and Tobago’s Machel Cedenio graduated from a world junior title one year to a World Championships final the next.

Van Niekerk’s development in the 400m has been slowed a little by his earlier concentration on the 200m, so perhaps he is a ‘younger’ one-lap runner than his age suggests.

If we go back a few years, we can find further examples of young men in a hurry to reach the top of the 400m.

At Olympic level, the Johnson era is somewhat of an exception. He won his two Olympic titles at age 28 and 33.

Before that, Steve Lewis was 19 when he stunned the world by defeating Butch Reynolds to win at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games and Quincy Watts was 22 when he ran 43.50 to win in Barcelona in 1992.

Jeremy Wariner succeeded Johnson as Olympic champion in Athens at the age of 20, before going on to win at the next two World Championships. He, in turn, was succeeded by the ‘young’ La Shawn Merritt, 22, in Beijing in 2008.

London 2012 was almost totally dominated by teenagers. Having won the world title in Daegu the previous year while still a junior, James added the Olympic gold medal before turning 20. Santos was second, having come to London after winning at the world junior title in Barcelona a couple of weeks earlier. Australia’s Steve Solomon, a co-bronze medallist at the World Junior Championships, made the final.

The trend is not as pronounced at the World Championships where Johnson and another ‘old’ man, 2013 champion and 2015 silver medallist Merritt, are obvious exceptions. But Wariner, Merritt in 2009, James and now Van Niekerk have all won at age 23 and younger.

Might there be some underlying reasons why male 400m runners can transition to the top of the event so quickly?

Peter Fortune coached 2000 Olympic champion Cathy Freeman throughout her career. He suggests men might break through in the 400m more quickly because their path into the event is determined earlier.

“Men tend to take it up as their specialty a bit younger,” Fortune says. “Van Niekerk might have moved up a little later because he went for 200m first and was then injured.

“It’s more obvious early if men don’t quite have the explosive speed to succeed at the shorter sprints, but do have the lactic tolerance for the 400m.”

Women tend to come to the 400m later because they are competitive in the 200m first.

“Not that many (400m) men are in the very top rank at 200m as well,” says Fortune, “but more women are.”

The fact that Van Niekerk this year became only the fourth man, after Johnson, Merritt and Makwala, to run sub-20 and sub-44 tends to support this observation.

Another change which may have quickened the younger 400m runner’s transition from junior to senior ranks is the reduction of the number of rounds from four to three. This change came in for the 2001 World Championships; Johnson ran four rounds en route to his fourth world title and world record in Seville in 1999. There were no sub-45-second first rounds – much less two sub-44 as we have just seen – under the four-round format.

Athletes in the US collegiate system have always been used to running rounds, but the introduction of the World Junior and World Youth Championships have also seen emerging young 400m runners from around the world getting accustomed to a senior-type competition format at an earlier age. The step from competing at youth/junior level to senior competition is not as big.

And, of course, we are seeing more 400m talent emerging from more nations around the world. This is reflected in the number of men running sub-44. Until the start of 2015, only 10 men had run under 44 seconds and James was the only non-American. Now those figures read 14 and five.

Trends are never irreversible, of course, so the ‘older’ generation may yet strike back. Merritt was second here, after all, and Makwala has joined the sub-44 club in the year he turns 29. But it seems we will be seeing more and more young men either side of 20 coming to the 400m with immediate impact.

Len Johnson for the IAAF