Africa has a rich tradition of dominating distances in Track. Over the years likewise, the continent has shown its capability in the sprints in the form of athletes like Frankie Fredericks, Falilat Ogunkoya, Samuel Matete and Mary Onyali amongst others.
For a while, things quieted down a bit and securing global titles in the 400m have been few and far between for Africa. Now spanning 40 years, there have been 18 editions of the World Athletics Championships, with the 19th set to hold in Budapest this August. Of all these, the title of the fastest man in the 400m has only come to Africa twice (by the same person), which happened in the last decade.
At the Olympics, the story isn’t any different, with the crown having come to Africa only twice – in 1920 & 2016!
Nevertheless, in the last few years, the continent has taken giant strides by unearthing talents, and even owning the World Record in the men’s 400m. Things are beginning to shape up again towards an upward trajectory with the return of the very best and the rise of fresh talents! Here are some of them:
Wayde van Niekerk
You could swap the name Wayde van Niekerk for 400m World Record holder and nothing will go wrong. The South African’s major big break was at the Beijing 2015 World Championships where he stormed to what was then an African Record of 43.48s. He quickly rose to the pinnacle of his event when he unprecedentedly became the fastest man to ever run the 400m, clocking a stunning 43.03s and winning the 2016 Olympic title whilst doing so.
In 2017, he successfully defended his world title in another blowout victory in London and even won 200m Silver, but his season ended badly in October 2017 while playing a celebrity-funded charity tag rugby match in Cape Town, tearing both his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and meniscus cartilage in his right leg. It was too much injury, even for a multiple World Champion like him, a career-threatening one at that, and it was going to be a slow and laborious recovery back to top form.
Although he was supposed to attempt a comeback in 2019, a bone bruise only further delayed this. Niekerk never again ran the 400m competitively till 2020 – a whole 3 years apart, after which he welcomed a baby, moved to the US and changed coaching, joining the Pure Athletics training group in Florida under Lance Brauman.
Despite COVID making a waste of most of the plans for 2020, he returned to the tracks, running his best 400m time of the season; 45.58s, at Gala dei Castelli in Switzerland and a very fast 10.10s over 100m as well in South Africa. As if acquiring mastery and attaining proficiency again, he began hitting his strides in 2021 when he qualified for the Olympics again with his 44.56s opener at the Meeting Madrid, eventually making it to the semifinals.
He went all the way in 2022 at the World Athletics Championships, making the final of the men’s 400m and placing 5th. With his season opener of 44.17s in 2023, which happens to be the fastest time in the world so far and won him his fifth National 400m title, who’s to say he isn’t back to being the one percent of this event?
Bayapo Ndori showed flashes of what he capable of when he beat Kirani James in the heats of the men’s 400m at the World Championships in Oregon, running what was then a Personal Best (PB) of 44.87s. From there, he finished 2nd in his semifinal, posting his second fastest 400m time ever and then ended his campaign, finishing just behind Wayde van Niekerk in the final.
Prior to that, he finished 2nd in the men’s 400m final at the African Championships behind Muzala Samukonga and has now run a brilliant PB of 44.61s to kickstart his season in Gaborone, Botswana, leading a host of Batswana in the event, including Olympic medallist Baboloki Thebe, Leungo Scotch, former World U-20 Champion Anthony Pesela and Busang Kebinatshipi.
Moving in the right direction, he will have great shoes to fill as he hopes to be as great as his countryman Isaac Makwala who was Van Niekirk’s main rival for years and holds the National Record in 43.72s!
2022 was the year of Muzala Samukonga’s quantum leap in the men’s 400m, showing up and rubbing shoulders with the big boys of the event. Relatively unknown in 2021, his best was at the World U-20 Championships in Nairobi where he crashed out of the semis of the 400m with what was a PB in 45.89s, albeit his first sub-46 clocking at the distance.
However, he ran a stunning race at the African Senior Championships in 2022, winning the 400m title in 45.31s, enough to secure him a spot at the World Championships and winning Silver in the 4x400m at the same games. At the Worlds in Oregon, he made it to the semis where he ran a gutsy race, finishing heavily in the final 100m to take 3rd, just missing out on a fastest loser spot but rewarded with a new PB of 45.02s.
At the Commonwealth Games about a fortnight after, he ran in the men’s 400m final, making up a deficit of about 10 metres and stunning the entire field which included the favourite and World Bronze medallist Matthew Hudson-Smith, to win the title in a huge PB of 44.66s! With his trademark finish, he also helped the Zambian 4x400m team qualify for the finals, eventually placing 5th.
Having showed great promise in 2022, Samukonga has signified interest in breaking 44 seconds in 2023 which will put him in elite league in the 400m. “I hope to qualify for the finals of the World Championship and compete at the Diamond League,” he added. Already, he started off his season on great note, running 45.16s in Lusaka.
Lythe Pillay has always been full of promise as an U-20 where he enjoyed great success, winning the men’s 400m at the World Junior Championships in Cali with a new PB of 45.28s, just outside the South African National Junior Record, and looks to be making a smooth transition to the senior category, running a time of 44.80s to finish 2nd at the South African Championships this year behind Wayde van Niekerk and qualify for the World Championships.