11 October, 2014

The discreet charm of the 400 m hurdles

I was planning this entry for the blog since the beginning of the year when Ashton Eaton announced that he would devote this year to the 400 m hurdles to the detriment of decathlon (with the exception of the indoor heptathlon world championships where he missed breaking his own world record for a fistful of points). In fact another renowned athlete, Costas Douvalidis, greek record holder of the 110 m hurdles, announced that he was planning to compete on both hurdles’ distances this year.

At about the same moment I stumbled upon the blog of J. Mulkeen who, inspired by Eaton’s announcement, made a detailed analysis of the “unlikely couple” (his words) of decathlon and 400 m hurdles. At the top of the best decathletes, who have competed in the 400 m hurdles, we find the mythical Daley Thompson, world champion, double olympic champion and world record holder with 8847 points, who has run a not bad at all 52.60 s. Next we have the bronze medalist of the 1992 Olympics, Dave Johnson, a 8705 points decathlete, who run a 50.99 s 400 m hurdles. Maurice Smith, world’s vice-champion of 2007, with a 8644 points personal, is third with a 54.35 s 400 m. The great Bill Toomey, 1968 olympic champion and world record holder with 8310 points, appears also in the list with a quite respectable 51.70 s performance. The best hurdler among decathletes is S├ębastien Maillard who was forced to abandon the decathlon because of repeated injuries. His best performance of 7562 points does not reflect his potential. He pursued a hurdler’s career and registered a best of 49.10 s, winning the 2007 Mediterranean Games with 49.80 s. At the top of the best hurdler’s list we have mainly athletes who were not decathlon specialists. The only one who figures in the top 10 of both lists is the czech Jan Podebradsky with 8314 points and a 49.62 s over the 400 m.

All this has changed with the arrival of Eaton, world and olympic champion and world record holder with 9039 points. He won the Diamond League 400 m hurdles race in Oslo (becoming the first ever decathlete to win an individual Diamond League event). At the Glasgow July 2014 Grand Prix he  registered his best performance of the year with 48.69 s which puts him at the absolute top of decathletes/hurdlers. The site oregonlive.com (Eaton was born and lives in the state of Oregon) reporting on his Glasgow masterstroke exclaims: ”what can't this guy do?”. I agree with them. Eaton is one of the best athletes of all time.

How about Douvalidis? He was also supposed to dedicate part of his efforts to the 400 m. Unfortunately an injury hampered the beginning of his season and he decided to concentrate himself to his speciality, the 110 m, where, by the way he has the same personal record as Eaton (13.34 compared to 13.35 s for the latter). Let’s hope that he manages to squeeze in at least one season of 400 m hurdles before he calls it quits.

I do not know what is it that makes the 400 m hurdles so attractive an event. Perhaps it is the fact that it is so hard, “the mankiller” as put epigrammatically by the great Kriss Akabusi.

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