A look back at the men’s 400m as Steve Smythe reflects on the history of events at the Olympics

The 400m event has been ever-present since 1896 and dominated by the USA, who have won 20 of the 28 races. Michael Johnson is the only double champion but both the 2008 and 2012 champions, LaShawn Merritt and Kirani James, have good chances of joining him.

Based on the quality of the 2015 World Championships, this could be the race of the Olympics.

1896 to 2012

The inaugural champion in Athens was Thomas Burke, who won a unique 100m-400m double. The time was just 54.2 but the tight bends meant runners had to slow down to avoid falling.

The American domination continued through 1900 to 1906 with Harry Hillman the fastest of them with 49.2 in 1904. Three of the six finalists refused to run in 1900 as the race took place on a Sunday.

In 1908, USA controversially went medal-less (see “British successes” below) but were back on top for 1912 when Charles Reidpath won in 48.2 to narrowly pip German Hanns Braun.

The 1920 race was much slower but more competitive with half a second covering the six runners and it was won by Devon-born and Oxford-educated Bevil Rudd in South African colours. He went on to become the Daily Telegraph athletics correspondent from 1931 until he died in 1948.

Britain gained another famous win in 1924 through Eric Liddell before USA won the three next pre-war events. The highlight was 1932 in Los Angeles when William Carr defeated world record-holder Benjamin Eastman and his world record to take gold in 46.2

That remained the Olympic record until Arthur Wint equalled it in 1948. Jamaican Wint was a big favourite with the London crowd as he was a University of London medical student and had a Scottish mother. Having earlier finished second in the 800m, in the 400m he caught team-mate Herb McKenley, who had started too fast, in the last 25 metres.

Curiously, Wint followed McKenley’s tactics in Helsinki in 1952 and uncharacteristically blasted through 200m in a PB 21.7 and then faded badly to fifth. McKenley, running in a controlled fashion, just failed to catch world record-holder George Rhoden and the pair set an Olympic record of 45.9.

USA then won the next five Games. Otis Davis and Germany’s Karl Kaufmann had a great battle in 1960 with Davis and US-born Kaufman sharing a world-record time of 44.9. The world record also fell in 1968, thanks partly to Mexico’s altitude and because Lee Evans was pushed all the way by Larry James. Evans’ time was a ground-breaking 43.86 and James also ran inside the old record with 43.97.

Vincent Matthews won in 1972 in a less spectacular 44.66, though his win was more notable for his deemed talking and fidgeting through the national anthem, which led to a ban for him and the runner-up, Wayne Collett, from the IOC from future competition, including the 4x400m relay at those Games.

History was made in 1976 when Alberto Juantorena not only won the first and only 400m and 800m double but also became the first from a non-English-speaking country to take the one-lap title. His 44.26 victory was the fastest ever sea-level clocking.

USA didn’t contest Moscow in 1980 but Alonso Babers restored American pride in 1984 with a 44.27 win and then teenager Steve Lewis just missed Evans’ Olympic record when he surprisingly beat world record-holder Butch Reynolds in 43.87 in Seoul in 1988.

Even faster in Barcelona 1992 was Quincy Watts, who ran Olympic records of 43.71 in his semi-final and then 43.50 in the final. USA made it seven in a row with Michael Johnson victories in 1996 and 2000 followed by Jeremy Wariner and LaShawn Merritt.

Johnson set his still-standing Olympic record of 43.49 in Atlanta. Juantorena, in 1976, had been the last to beat an American in an Olympic 400m final – until 36 years later when teenager Kirani James of Grenada easily won by five metres in London in an impressive 43.94. Despite getting faster, James has failed to win the two world championship finals held since.

Most memorable Olympic 400m: Tokyo 1964

In 1960, Mike Larrabee was considered a potential medal prospect until a tendon injury kept him from competing but he returned strongly four years later on the cinders of Tokyo, but at 32, was written off as too old until he equalled the world record with a 44.9 win in the US trials.

He ran a superb race in the final. He was only sixth at 200m and fifth coming into the straight, but while others faded, he finished strongly and he caught Trinidad’s Wendell Mottley in the last 10 metres to win by a few feet in 45.1.

He was the first white 400m winner since 1932. British team captain Robbie Brightwell just missed a medal in fourth in 45.7. Larrabee so caught the imagination of the journalists present that his press conference took a record two hours.

British successes

After USA, Britain are easily the second most successful one-lap nation in the Olympics, even though they have only won one medal in the last 76 years.

Wyndham Halswelle was second in 1906 but won in unusual circumstances in 1908. He won his semi-final in an Olympic record 48.4 and in the four-man final was drawn against three Americans. The British judges expected unfair tactics and placed officials every 20 metres. As Halswelle attempted to pass John Carpenter, the latter ran wide and held him off. The judges called it a foul and no-race and it was scheduled for two days later without Carpenter. His team-mates refused to compete, though, and Halswelle ran the final unopposed in 50.0. So disgusted was he at the incident, he retired from athletics. He died in the war in 1915.

The next British winner – Eric Liddell – also died in a war – in a Japanese concentration camp in 1945. His moment of glory, immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire, came in 1924 in Paris. He finished third in the 200m and then blasted through halfway in the 400m final in 22.2. He slowed but went away from his pursuers to win in an Olympic record 47.6. He had not broken 49 seconds before the semi-finals.

Guy Butler, who had been second in 1920, gained his second medal, a bronze. The next British medal came in Berlin in 1936. World record-holder Archie Williams started fast and had a good lead but slowed dramatically and was almost caught by Britain’s Godfrey Brown. The then official hand timings of 46.5 and 46.7 don’t reveal the closeness that the photo-finish timing of 46.66 to 46.68 suggests.

There was no close encounter when the next British medal was won in 1996 in Atlanta. Michael Johnson, who was to set the still-standing world record of 43.18, three years later, won by almost a second – then the biggest margin at the Olympics for 100 years. In second, though, Roger Black ran a superbly controlled race to take the silver in 44.41.

More famous, though, was the 1992 Barcelona semi-finals when Derek Redmond tore a hamstring on the back straight. He limped and walked his way to the finish line and was aided by his father, Jim, who rushed on to the track. Redmond junior earned a standing ovation from the 65,000 crowd on his way to the line.

» Check out editions of Athletics Weekly magazine from September 24, 2015, for more from our ‘Countdown to Rio’ series

» For the full Olympic history: Men’s 400m feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the October 22, 2015, edition of AW magazine