Spikes13 Feb 2014

Can King Kirani regain his 400m crown this year?


Kirani James

As a teenager, Kirani James ruled the 400m. But 2013 was a year of mixed form and improved rivals. We speak to the easygoing sprinter about his bid to be world number one again this year.

If there is a more chilled out athlete in the world than Kirani James, then we’ve yet to meet them.

Laidback and unflustered, the Grenadian sensation has a relaxed manner entirely befitting someone who won world and Olympic gold before he was old enough to hire a car.

But last August, at the Moscow 2013 World Championships, something very unusual happened. He lost and lost badly.

Kirani James – who claimed a 200m and 400m world youth double aged 16; world 400m gold at 18 and Olympic gold a year later – finished seventh. Yes, SEVENTH, in the world 400m final.

“I always had the mindset that one day I was going to have a bad race."

The American LaShawn Merritt blitzed to victory in 43.74, the fastest 400m time in the world for six years. James, who was second entering the home straight, faded badly to cross the line in 44.99, more than a second behind the PB he set to win Olympic gold at London 2012.

So, in his brief and glittering career so far, was it the worst race?

“Yes, actually it was,” says James, 21. “The worst I can ever remember before that was the sixth I had at the world indoors the previous year.”

The latter can largely be explained by his 1.91m frame; ill-suited to the demands of running on a tight indoor track. The Moscow world champs is a mystery, as James had never finished outside of the first two in an outdoor 400m race.

The Spice Island of Grenada was in shock. Had their beloved Spice Boy been carrying an injury? Was he ill? Why didn’t he pick up his usual gold medal?

“I always had the mindset that one day I was going to have a bad race."

“Mine just happened to be in the biggest race of the year, but because it happened to be at the World Championships, it was magnified. I just had to look at it as a bad race, learn from it and move on.”

To emphasise the point, James explained how in his next race, in Zurich, he ran more than half a second quicker to finish second behind Merritt in 44.32. That would have been good enough for silver in Moscow.

At just 19, James ran a PB 43.94 to win Olympic gold and go ninth all-time.

The University of Alabama business student then took an eight-week break at the end of the season. He celebrated his 21st birthday in Grenada on September 1st, a day known as Kirani James Day across the island, honouring his achievement as the island’s only ever Olympic medallist.

He does not even use his Moscow defeat as motivation during training in the long winter months. James takes a much more philosophical approach:

“We have the same approach in terms of how we train and compete,” he says. “My coach G [Harvey Glance, the 1976 Olympic 4x100m champion and former head coach at the University of Alabama] and I just work on improving and getting better.”

Glance, who helped recruit the gangly young sprinter from Grenada to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, has great faith in his charge.

According to James, Glance said very little in the immediate wake of his defeat: “he didn’t need to.”

The plan is to put a greater emphasis on the weights room, in a bid to return to the top of the world rankings next season. “I plan to put a lot more effort in,” he says.

At the time of this interview the languid 400m sprinter could not commit to the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, although he sounds pretty keen.

“It is an event I would like to compete in. It is a huge deal for Grenada. I’d love to be at the Commonwealth Games and have another opportunity to run for my country.”

It is, however, the prospect of Kirani James vs. LaShawn Merritt that excites fans ahead of this year’s IAAF Diamond League season.

“He is good,” admits James. “But I can’t control how motivated he is or how he trains. I don’t see a rivalry between him and me. I see it as rivalry between lots of the 400m guys. It is not just about him and me, but the whole 400m group collectively.”

Unruffled and unflustered, the outrageously talented Grenadian is out to prove that his Moscow mishap was the exception rather than rule. 

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