From the Past to the Present in the 400 Meter Dash

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(Editor’s Note. Many people who follow track and field closely believe that the 400 meter race is the most difficult race in the sport.  Runners must combine sprinter speed with the endurance of a middle distance runner.  It is essentially a long sprint that is at the same time an anaerobic event.  The author focuses on two great runners whose competitive careers were 40 years apart.  Even so, the times achieved by Lee Evans in the late 1960s would still be world class today).

Year in and year out, Athletics (track and field) has arguably been the most prestigious sport in the Summer Olympics. The 400 meter event has always been one of the most popular track and field events for viewers to watch. Analyzing this event from an historical perspective, two individuals come to ‘MY’ mind who exemplify the drive and determination its takes to be a great 400 meter runner.

The first person who comes to mind is former Olympic gold medalist Lee Evans. Evans played a pivotal role in making the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City one of the most memorable Olympics to date. He capped off that year by winning two gold medals; one in the 400 meters and the other in the 4×400 meter relay. Those who do not know Lee Evans should read his biography entitled The Last Protest authored by Frank Murphy. This book gives a great overview of Evans’ experiences throughout his career: with an in-depth examination of his route to striking gold at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games. Evans was the first person to break the 44 second barrier in the 400 meters (43.86). His world record stood for 20 years. Just to put this in perspective, only 9 athletes have ever been able to break 44 seconds and Evans did it over 40 years ago.

Recently crowned 400 meter World Champion Kirani James is the next person that comes to mind. Kirani James is a native of Gouyave, Grenada and spent two years competing at The University of Alabama before becoming a professional runner. James garnered many accomplishments as a collegiate athlete, most notably winning the 2010 and 2011 NCAA Championships in the 400 meters his freshman and sophomore year. He was only seventeen when he won his first individual national championship and just before his nineteenth birthday, he became the 2011 400 meter World Champion in Daegu, Korea. Many people wonder what makes James such a special athlete…..I figure it is because of God-given talent, humility, maturity, and a strong mindset.

During the time I’ve spent with each of these individuals, the one characteristic that surely makes a great track and field athlete is having a strong mindset. “Track and Field is 90% mental” is a phrase former Olympic gold medalist Harvey Glance continuously drilled into his athletes’ head. Harvey Glance currently coaches Kirani James and is set to lead him into the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. Now don’t get me wrong, athleticism is most certainly needed to become a great athlete, but in order to maximize the potential of any athlete, their mindset has to be strong. These qualities are evident in two of the greatest 400 meter runners I’ve personally met and interacted with, Lee Evans and Kirani James.

Speaking on the subject of having a strong mind, it has recently been reported that Lee Evans has a large tumor in his brain. He is set to undergo surgery and needs everyone praying for his well-being. Evans has big plans in the future, as he plans to build a school in Liberia with the help of his wife. Let’s try to do everything we can to keep Evan’s dream alive.

To view Kirani James in action readers can click here.

Brandon Spradley is a doctoral student and Teaching Assistant at the United States Sports Academy.  He ran track at the University of Alabama where he ran the 200 and 400 meter races and also ran on relay teams.  He was all SEC in relay events during his time at Alabama.  He was a teammate of Kirani James while at Alabama.