LONDON: World 400m champion Kirani James would love to end the Americans’ 28-year Olympic dominance of his event – but in the meantime the teenager is happy to let his rivals feel the pressure.
James burst on to the global scene last year at the tender age of 18 when he powered to the world title in Daegu, showing a raw talent that many compared to Usain Bolt at the same age.
While the focus of the athletics program will be Bolt’s duel with Yohan Blake in the short sprint, Kirani could make the 400m a highlight as he bids to defy reigning champion LaShawn Merritt of the United States.
Merritt has the weighty responsibility of delivering the Americans an eighth consecutive Olympic title in an event they consider their own.
So how would it feel for James to stand on the podium with the rarely heard anthem of the Caribbean island of Grenada ringing around the Olympic Stadium?
“It would be awesome,” he said with a smile. “It wouldn’t be just memorable for me, but for everybody in my country and everybody who is a fan of me.
“But it’s not just about beating the Americans, it’s a very talented field throughout so you can’t underestimate anybody,” he added.
While Merritt has run a fast 44.12sec this year, James has had a low-key buildup – “I focused on school – and the big picture. Don’t try to run too many races so that by the time the Olympics come round I am burned out and tired.”
The slender quarter miler seems a laid back character and confirms: “I don’t have pressure at all – the pressure is on the Olympic champion.”
Like James, his American coach Harvey Glance was just 19 when he made his Olympic debut at the 1976 Montreal Games, winning a gold medal in the 4x100m relay.
Glance said he was proud that James, who attends the University of Alabama in the United States, has proved that he is no flash in the pan.
“So often you have people that are one-year wonders and one thing about him is that he is not a one-year wonder, he has proven that and all his times this year have been under 45 seconds,” Glance said.
“He is doing amazing things at 18 or 19 years old and the thing I am most proud of is that after winning the world championships he is now back in position to try to do something special here.”
So how fast can he go? Michael Johnson’s world record of 43.18sec was predicted to stand for decades when it was set in 1999, but James’ talent and sheer physical attributes suggest he could threaten it.
“Remember Michael Johnson was 29 years old when he set the world record and he’s only 19. There’s a lot of growth he has to be prepared for,” said Glance.
“We’ll take this stage and we’ll learn from it, and we’ll try to get even better as we go down the road.”