2012 Olympics: Teenage Gold Medalist Kirani James Opens New Era for 400 Meters

Dan HopeContributor IIIAugust 6, 2012

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 06:  Kirani James of Grenada leads the field in the Men's 400m final on Day 10 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 6, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

In the first-ever Olympic 400-meter dash final that did not include a U.S. runner, Grenada’s Kirani James became the first non-U.S. runner to ever run the 400 faster than 44 seconds. He won gold with a time of 43.94 seconds.

In doing so, James established himself as the biggest non-U.S. star that men’s track and field has ever had in the 400.

James became the first gold-medalist from outside the U.S. in the 400, since the 1980 Games in Moscow, which the U.S. boycotted. The U.S. lost their reign on the event this year with no U.S. runners qualifying for the final. With James being only 19 years old, that reign could belong to Grenada for many more years.

As an 18-year-old last year, James won gold at the 2011 World Championships, running a then-personal-best time of 44.60 seconds to beat U.S. runner LaShawn Merritt to the finish line by .03 seconds.

One year later, James has accomplished an even greater feat by winning gold in London and becoming the fastest non-U.S. runner ever in the process.

Merritt came into the 2012 Games as the favorite to win the 400, but he was forced to pull out in the first round of competition due to a hamstring injury. Had Merritt, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist in the 400, been healthy, he may have been able to defeat James, but James has now proven himself as the world’s best in the event.

Merritt will likely be back for the 2016 Games, but he will be 30 at the time, meaning his prime as a 400-meter runner may have passed.

James, on the other hand, is still improving quickly as a 400 runner, given his youth, and should continue to be a major contender for two or three more Olympiads.

The last non-U.S. runner to beat U.S. competition and win gold in the Olympics prior to James was Cuba’s Alberto Juantorena, who won gold in 1976. Juantorena, however, failed to make the podium in his second Games, while his fastest time was 44.26 seconds.

James has already surpassed Juantorena’s times, and with his youth, it should be expected that he will win more Olympic medals in his future. As a defending world champion and Olympic champion, including a victory over Merritt at the 2011 world championship, James has made a clear statement that he is already the world’s best in the event.

James’ time in the Olympic final is the world’s fastest in the 400 this year and the first sub-44 time by any runner in the event since 2008. The time ranks as the 38th-fastest-ever run, and makes James the ninth-fastest to ever run the race.

James’ feat is also an absolutely huge feat for the nation of Grenada, as it is not only the first gold medal ever won by the nation, but also the first Olympic medal of any color.

At 19 years old, James may already be the best athlete ever from his nation, and given the bright future that should be ahead of him, he appears to be well on his way to becoming not only the best non-U.S. 400-meter  runner ever, but one of the best ever in the 400 from any nation.

James’ future in the 400, however, will not come without serious competition.

The toughest competition may come from Dominican Republic’s Luquelin Santos, who earned the silver medal in Monday’s 400 final and is also still a teenager at only 18 years of age.

For the U.S. men’s track and field team, the future is frightening, as they are going to have to seriously step up their game in the 400 to fend off the world’s youth movement and to re-gain its reign of the event.

For the world, however, the 400 may be as competitive as ever—only if Santos and other young runners can keep James from continuing to run away with gold medals, as he escapes his teenage years.

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Dan Hope is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist covering the 2012 Olympic Games. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.