The climax of the men’s 400m at the 2017 Monaco Diamond League was just picture perfect, the stuff fairy tales are made of: South Africa’s Wayde Van Niekerk and Botswana’s Isaac Makwala engaged in a superiority battle as they sailed towards the finishing line, while another Botswanan, Baboloki Thebe followed in 3rd place.
This might be considered the ‘African Dream’ ahead of the men’s 400m final at the IAAF World Championships holding in London from August 4th to 13th, but is this fantasy far-fetched, or is it in fact, feasible?
Van Niekerk remains the key player in all of this, having evolved as the face of the 400m following his exploits at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Two years ago at the Beijing National Stadium, the South African ran a blazing time of 43.48s to win the world title, inspiring former World and Olympic Champion LaShawn Merritt to a Personal Best (PB) of 43.65s in 2nd place, while Grenada’s Kirani James set a Season’s Best (SB) of 43.78s to finish 3rd.
Of course it was adjudged the fastest 400m race in history as all medallists dipped inside 44s – the first time of such occurring in the 400m! Not even Michael Johnson’s World Record (WR)-breaking feat (43.18s) at the 1999 World Championships in Seville could compare as 2nd and 3rd place finishers, Sanderlei Claro Parrela and Alejandro Cárdenas clocked 44.29s and 44.31s respectively.
The main actors in the men’s 400m final at the Rio Olympics remained the same, with their positions somewhat altered as defending champion James upped his game to finish 2nd this time around (43.76s), while Merritt settled for 3rd in 43.85s as Van Niekerk smashed the WR to become the fastest man ever in the 400m in an astonishing time of 43.03s!
Coming to the 2017 World Championships, there seems to be a change of cast, with the only constant being Van Niekerk, who looks poised to retain his title. 2011 World Champion James has been ruled out due to illness, while Merritt who hasn’t been too active this season, earned his spot in London by winning the Diamond Race Trophy last season.
While there is no doubt with regards to Van Niekerk’s ability to retain his title, the question is can he successfully double in the 200m/400m in London?
The World Championships schedule was particularly tailored to accommodate the 25-year old’s ambition of doing the double, and going by the time table released by the IAAF, there is no clash of events, although athletes going for both events would race every day from Days 2 to 7 of the Championships when the 200m would be concluded. The 400m final holds on Day 5.
Former African Champion Makwala seems to have become Van Niekerk’s main challenger going by the way he pushed the South African in Monaco, before settling for 2nd eventually in an SB of 43.84s. The 30-year old owns three of the Top 10 times this year (43.84s, 43.92, 44.08s), and looks good to go.
Worthy of mention was his incredible feat at the IAAF World Challenge in Madrid where he clocked 43.92s in the 400m, before setting a blazing World Lead (WL) of 19.77s in the 200m less than two hours later. So it goes without saying that Van Niekerk has his hands full in both events, and would be wary of his African counterpart who overtook him on the 200m standings.
On the other hand, reigning African Champion Thebe is ranked 4th in the 400m (44.02s), but can he overcome the threat posed by new kid on the block, Fred Kerley, to finish on the podium in London?
Kerley has taken the 400m by storm this year and set several World Leads (WL). In fact, he owns four of the Top 10 times in the world in 2017 (43.70s, 44.03s, 44.09, 44.10s), and is currently ranked 2nd on the standings. Only Van Niekerk (43.62s) has run faster this year, and the 2017 NCAA Champion looks like the perfect figure to throw a spanner in the works as far as achieving an African 1-2-3 is concerned.
2013 World Champion Merritt cannot also be ruled out in the scheme of things as he possesses the uncanny ability of showing up when it really matters. The 31-year old has had a somewhat quiet season, only running the 400m at the Doha Diamond League and the 200m at the Shanghai Diamond League.
He initially planned to go for the 200m/400m in London but had to pull out of the 200m semis at the US Trials, and will now focus on the 400m in London. Will his singular focus give him an edge over his African counterparts, or will the ‘African dream’ become a reality in London?