Kirani James winning the 400m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene (© Kirby Lee)
The men’s 400m rivalry between Kirani James and LaShawn Merritt will return to the Prefontaine Classic for a fifth time on 28 May; after sub-44 races in the past two years, it is possible that one of the oldest meeting records at the IAAF Diamond League competition could take a tumble.
The record in question is the 43.92 set by Michael Johnson in 2000 in his final race at Hayward Field. The mark, achieved less than a year after he set the world record of 43.18, stands as the second-oldest men’s meeting record.
Both James and Merritt join Johnson as the only multiple winners of the men’s 400m at the Prefontaine Classic. The field is its fastest ever and it will be just the second time in history in which five men with sub-44 PBs have lined up against one another.
James, still only 23, has won at Hayward Field for the past two years and is the only runner with more than one sub-44 clocking at the Prefontaine Classic. He won last year’s race in 43.95 after taking the 2014 title in 43.97, beating Merritt on both occasions. At the recent Drake Relays, James took the early world lead at 44.08 with a victory over Merritt to increase his career head-to-head lead to 11-7.
The 2014 finish was the meeting’s most exciting ever, as both James and Merritt finished with the same time of 43.97, then the fastest same-time finish in the event. James had won their first matchup as an 18-year-old at the 2011 IAAF World Championships in Daegu, defeating the then-world and Olympic champion Merritt in a stirring homestretch battle. The victory made James a national hero in his native Grenada. A year later in London, James became his country’s first Olympic champion in any sport.
Merritt, a four-time winner at the Prefontaine Classic, is running faster than ever. Having lowered his 400m PB to take silver at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015, he clocked 19.78 in the 200m in Nassau last month to break an almost nine-year-old PB.
Isaac Makwala of Botswana made his first major championships final last year, finishing fifth in Beijing just one month after setting a short-lived African record of 43.72. He holds national records for 100m, 200m and 400m and won the African Games title in his specialist event last year.
Until last year, the 43.97 same-time finish by James and Merritt at the 2014 Prefontaine Classic was the fastest 400m close finish in history. That changed in the first-round heats at last summer’s World Championships. Saudi Arabia’s Yousef Masrahi and Rusheen McDonald both ran 43.93 to finish 1-2 in the same heat with Masrahi breaking the Asian record and McDonald setting a Jamaican record.
Masrahi won the Asian Games title in 2014, while McDonald took silver in the 4x400m at the 2013 IAAF World Championships.
At 19, Abdalleleh Haroun of Qatar is the youngest runner in the race. In March in Portland he became the youngest ever 400m medallist at the IAAF World Indoor Championships, earning silver. A month earlier he set a world indoor best at 500m, running 59.83 in Stockholm.
Trinidad and Tobago’s Machel Cedenio won the 2014 world junior title at Hayward Field. Last year he improved his PB to 44.36, was the youngest 400m finalist in Beijing, and anchored his team to silver in the 4x400m.
Steven Gardiner of The Bahamas is only in his second year of serious 400m running. In his first year, he set a national record of 44.27 at age 19 to win his first national title.
Organisers for the IAAF
2016 IAAF Diamond League calendar
6 May – Doha, QAT
14 May – Shanghai, CHN
22 May – Rabat, MAR
28 May – Eugene, USA
2 Jun – Rome, ITA
5 Jun – Birmingham, GBR
9 Jun – Oslo, NOR
16 Jun – Stockholm, SWE
15 Jul – Monaco, MON
22-23 Jul – London, GBR
25 Aug – Lausanne, SUI
27 Aug – Paris, FRA
1 Sep – Zurich, SUI
9 Sep – Brussels, BEL