The first two rounds of Olympic competition in the men’s 400-meter dash could not have gone much worse for the three U.S. runners in the event: LaShawn Merritt, Tony McQuay and Bryshon Nellum. As a result, the United States will have no participant in the 400 final, an event that has been won by a U.S. man in every Olympic Games since 1984.
The only other Olympic 400-meter dash final that has ever been run without a U.S. runner was at the 1980 Moscow Games, which the U.S. boycotted. In an event that the United States has dominated like no other, this is certainly a low point for the U.S. men’s track and field team.
LaShawn Merritt, the defending Olympic champion, came into the Games having run the world’s two fastest times this year, and was the pre-Games favorite. However, during Friday’s first round of heats, Merritt was forced to pull out of the race due to a hamstring injury, dealing a devastating blow to the United States’ chances of winning their eighth consecutive gold in the 400.
Even without Merritt, the U.S. was still expected to have a finalist in Tony McQuay, who came into the Games with three of the year’s top 11 times. McQuay, however, had a very disappointing race in the semifinals, finishing with a time of 45.31 seconds, .82 seconds off his best time this year, and only tied for the 14th-fastest semifinal time.
McQuay came into the Games as a legitimate medal contender, so this performance was unexpectedly poor. The third U.S. 400 runner, Bryshon Nellum, was considered a long shot to medal, but he gave a valiant effort in the semifinals. However, he came up .24 seconds short of the 44.80 he ran to qualify at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, and his semifinal time of 45.04 was ninth-fastest, leaving him one place short of qualifying for the final.
The 400-meter title will now be claimed by one of six other nations: Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Belgium or Australia. For the United States, a nation who has won 20 Olympic 400 titles out of 28 Olympic Games, focus will certainly be placed upon returning to the podium in the event at the 2016 Games.
The U.S. has earned a medal in the 400 in every Olympics they have participated in, except for the 1920 Games and now this year’s Games. Along the way, the U.S. has had many legendary 400-meter champions, including world-record holder Michael Johnson, who won back-to-back titles in 1996 and 2000,
Had it not been for Merritt’s injury, he had a great shot of becoming the second back-to-back Olympic gold medalist in the 400, and extending the United States’ Olympic reign in the 400 to 32 years. At 30 years of age, Merritt may still be a title contender at the 2016 Games, but the U.S. is in serious need of new talent in the race to avoid being shut out again in Rio de Janeiro.
How dominant has the United States been over the years? So dominant that the 72 fastest times ever run in the event have been by U.S. athletes. Furthermore, the 12 fastest 400 runners in world history are all U.S. athletes, and a non-American has never broken 44 seconds in the race.
It appears, however, that the rest of the world has finally started to catch up to the U.S. in the 400. At the 2011 World Championships, Olympic finalist Kirani James of Grenada earned gold, while Merritt was second and no other U.S. athlete made the final.
The United States also has a 28-year reign in the 4x400-meter relay, an event they have not lost since the 1976 Games (but did not compete in at the 1980 Games due to the boycott). That reign, however, is also officially in jeopardy after not putting a single runner in the individual 400 final.
With six of the world’s fastest 14 400 runners this season, the U.S. remains the gold-medal favorites in that event, but they are very likely to be running it without Merritt. This will force McQuay and Nellum to lead a team that still has more depth than any other nation, but will lack a star anchor leg.
To prove that they are still a world power in the 400, the U.S. really needs to win gold in the 4x400 on Friday. Even so, the United States’ dominance of the 400 is officially on hiatus and will be threatened forever if Team USA cannot find the next Johnson, Merritt, Jeremy Wariner or Quincy Watts to win individual gold in the event.
Dan Hope is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist covering the 2012 Olympic Games. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.