American record-holder Sanya Richards-Ross will not be defending her Olympic 400m title after failing to make the top three at the sudden-death-like US trials in July. Richards-Ross is the last woman to run sub 49 seconds in the one-lap event.
Her absence from the Rio Olympics has extended the waiting period for a female back-to-back 400m champion to 20 years. The last person to achieve that feat is French star Marie-Jose’ Perec who incidentally is also the last woman to win the 200m/400m double at an Olympic games.
Richards-Ross aside, this event is still packed with enough star power to make it a gripping encounter attracting millions of viewers worldwide.
World champion Allyson Felix will be seeking to add Olympic gold in this event to her already overcrowded closet of global championship medals. It will not come without a challenge though and Felix must prepare for a fight to the wire from a host of fiercely competitive rivals. She is the second fastest quarter-miler this season with her 49.68 victory at the US trials. Felix will be hoping to sign off her final Olympic campaign a lot better than how she started by bagging gold instead of silver. Felix is always an X-factor and usually rises to the challenge.
Although all competitors must be taken seriously, perhaps the most dangerous of them all is Bahamian superstar in the making Shaunae Miller. She has been having a sparkling season competing undefeated over 200m and 400m while registering personal best times in both.
Miller is the only athlete dipping below 50 seconds twice this season and her recent 49.55 PB performance in Monaco has underlined her readiness and shifted the balance in her favour. Last year she was defeated by Felix at the World championship in Beijing, and experts believe Miller’s race tactics, speed, and execution along with her burning desire to win will be paramount in this contest.
Another Caribbean athlete who has commanded mutual respect among her peers is Shericka Jackson. Incidentally, the world championship bronze medallist (Jackson) and Miller have been competing against each other for several years now since they were juniors at the CARIFTA games.
Jackson has had a lukewarm season so far, however, her astute coach Stephen Francis knows exactly how to get his athletes to peak at global championships. In retrospect Jackson’s 2016 season has mirrored that of 2015 where she gets progressively faster later on. If that form chart holds true another podium spot is likely with a new personal best. Jackson whose PB is 49.99 will be out to prove she is not a one hit wonder.
Her teammate Stephenie-Ann McPherson has been the most consistent and indeed fastest Jamaican quarter-miler this season. McPherson’s second place standing in the Diamond Race is testament to her form and level of fitness. She is poised to dip below 50 seconds before her season ends. She wouldn’t mind that performance coming in Rio when it really matters, especially if it claims a coveted medal.
Christine Day completes the Jamaican three-prong attack. She has been a solid performer all season. Her aggressive long striding running style will be given a stern test in Rio and she has to be mindful to reserve a little fuel in her tank during qualifying. At her best, Day is capable of competing fiercely with the best on any given day.
American duo Natasha Hastings and Phyllis Francis will be competing for the first time in an individual capacity at an Olympic games. The experience should serve them well.
Last but certainly not least is the mystery that South Africa’s Caster Semenya brings to this event. She is attempting the 400m/800m double. Jamila Kratochvilova of the Czech Republic is the last female athlete to win that double at a global event. She won with some astonishing times at the inaugural 1983 world championships (47.99 & 1:54.68 respectively).
Semenya (25) who hopes to emulate Kratochvilova provided subtle hints of her intentions earlier this year at the South African championships in April. She put her speed and stamina to the test while competing in and winning the 400m, 800m and 1500m on the same day all in South African records. She has since lowered her 800m and 1500m times in subsequent competitions. Therefore, it will be no surprise if Semenya’s 400m personal record of 50.74 seconds which has stood for the last four months is revised considerably in Rio.
If Semenya goes through with her ambitious decision, it will certainly bring added lustre to an event that was already one of the must-see showdowns in Rio.