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A world 400m champion at the age of 18 and an Olympic champion a year later at London 2012, when he also became Grenada’s first ever medallist in the history of the Games, Kirani James won silver behind Wayde Van Niekerk in a race for the ages at Rio 2016.
When Kirani James walked out to defend his Olympic 400m title at Rio 2016 at the age of only 23, he had a magnificent career record behind him, having won major titles at every level since his junior years.
Born in the little fishing village of Gouyave, in the Caribbean island nation of Grenada, on 1 September 1992, he first made his mark in track and field in his teenage years, recording the fastest ever 400m time by a 14-year-old and running a world best again when he turned 15. He then completed a 200m/400m double at the 2009 IAAF Youth World Championships in Bressanone (ITA).
A year later in Moncton (CAN), he added the world junior 400m title to his growing collection of honours. Offered scholarships by no fewer than 10 U.S. colleges, he eventually opted for the University of Alabama. In making his first appearance on an indoor track for his new team, he ran 45.79 in the 400m, placing first and breaking the college’s record, which had stood for ten years.
James was still only 18 when he became the youngest 400m world champion of all time in Daegu (KOR) in 2011, his time of 44.60 giving him gold ahead of the USA’s LaShawn Merritt and Belgium’s Kevin Borlée (44.90) and earning Grenada its first ever IAAF World Championship medal. In topping the podium, James joined the very select band of athletes to have won world youth, junior and senior titles. He ended the year by also winning the IAAF Diamond League.
James then headed to London 2012 as one of the favourites for Olympic gold, and laid down a marker by running a personal-best 44.59 in the semi-finals. Drawn into Lane 5 in the final, the 19-year-old flew down the back straight and emerged from the final bend with a sizeable lead. He extended it down the home straight and cruised to victory with a new PB and national record of 43.94, finishing well clear of old junior rival Luguelin Santos of the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago’s Lalonde Gordon.
In becoming the first non-American runner to dip under 44 seconds in the event, he also won a first Olympic medal for his country. “It means a lot. Grenada will be going crazy right now,” he later said. “This is a huge step for our country in terms of stepping up to the plate in track and field, just going out there and putting us on the map.”
Though James continued to excel at international meetings, he failed to retain his world title, coming in seventh in the 2013 final in Moscow. After taking his PB down to 43.74 in Lausanne in 2014, the fastest time of the year and the sixth of all time, he then won gold at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, edging South Africa’s Wayde Van Niekerk, who is six weeks his elder.
James won the Diamond League for a second time in 2015, a year in which he ran 43.78 in the World Championship final in Beijing to finish third behind Merritt and Van Niekerk, the winner in a time of 43.48. It was the first time that three men had broken 44 seconds in the same race.
“The Games are the biggest event on anybody’s schedule,” said James ahead of his Olympic title defence at Rio 2016. “So I’m just looking forward to representing my country, to making everyone proud and making myself proud. I’m looking forward to competing against all these great 400m runners. I’m just trying to improve on my times. You can’t take anything for granted. I have to keep on working and keep on competing to the best of my ability.”
Victorious in his heat and semi-final in Rio, James lined up in Lane 6 in the final, with Van Niekerk outside him in Lane 8. The South African was in a class of his own, however, posting a new world record of 43.03, with James winning his battle for silver with Merritt thanks to a late burst.
“Congratulations to Wayde,” said the Grenadian afterwards. “I’m happy to be part of a race that made history. We have put this sport on a pedestal. Usually guys slow down a bit in the last hundred, but not this time.”
With the rivalry between Van Niekerk and James having moved on to a new level, the athletics world can expect many more breathtaking jousts between them in the lead-up to Tokyo 2020.