Kirani James: Putting Grenadian athletics on the map
Aged just 19, Kirani James won Grenada’s first ever Olympic medal when he claimed gold in the men’s 400m at London 2012. Four years on, and he is determined to hold onto his crown at Rio 2016.
“I really am on the right track for achieving big things this season,” says reigning men’s Olympic 400m champion Kirani James.
Judging by his performance at the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa in April 2016, that certainly appears to the case. James ran 44.08, the fastest outdoor time this year, to beat LaShawn Merritt, his American rival and the Beijing 2008 gold medallist.
James will still only be 23 when he lines up for the 400m heats at the Olympic Stadium in Rio in a little under three months’ time. Despite his young age, he has already put together a stellar career, having won every major title there is to win since his junior years.
Born on 1 September 1992 in Gouyave, St John, on the Caribbean island of Grenada, James began to make his name when he ran the fastest ever 400m times by a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old.
He backed those achievements up by scoring a 200m/400m double at the 2009 IAAF World Youth Championships in Bressanone (ITA) and then winning gold in the longer event at the World Junior Championships in Moncton (CAN) the very next year.
James was only 18 when he became the youngest ever 400m world champion in Daegu (KOR) in 2011, clocking a time of 44.60 to win from Merritt and Belgium’s Kevin Borlée and secure his country’s first ever world championship medal, a feat he followed up a few days later by winning the IAAF Diamond League.
Arriving at London 2012 as one of the favourites for gold, the Grenadian teenager made his intentions clear by running a personal-best 44.59 in the semi-finals. James saved the best till last, however. Running in Lane 5, he flew down the back straight, emerged from the final bend with a clear lead and increased it before crossing the line in 43.94, a new PB and national record, with his old junior foe Luguelin Santos of Dominican Republic taking the silver and Trinidad and Tobago’s Lalonde Gordon the bronze.
Tipped for greatness
It was a historic day for Grenada, as James won the country its first ever Olympic medal, and for the 400m, with the Grenadian becoming the first non-American to dip under the 44-second mark.
“It means a lot. Grenada will be going crazy right now,” said the man of the moment. “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.”
Meanwhile, 400m world record holder and two-time Olympic champion Michael Johnson had this to say about his performance: “He was in control all the way. Under 44 seconds for the first time in his career – we figured he would do it eventually and he did it just at the right time.
“He can go much faster than this, no doubt about it, because his technique is not that great. I am sure he will have my world record (43.18) in his sights. He is tremendously talented and has many years to learn about this event. He is already very mature and I would expect him to continue to improve.”
James has continued to flourish on the international since then, though he did finish a lowly seventh at the 2013 Worlds in Moscow. In Lausanne a year later, he took his PB down to 43.74, the fastest time of 2014 and the sixth-quickest of all time, and then beat rising South African star Wayde Van Niekerk to pocket Commonwealth gold in Glasgow.
The Grenadian continued his domination of the global circuit in 2015 by winning the Diamond League again, but could only finish third in the World Championships that year, held at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing. The fastest 400m race in history, with the top three all beating 44 seconds, it saw Van Niekerk take gold in 43.48, just ahead of Merritt and James.
“The Games are the biggest event on anybody’s schedule,” he said as he contemplated the countdown to his title defence in Rio. “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.”