‘Time for the 400m to get back to centre stage’
Former Olympic and World champion Sanya Richards-Ross talks about the event’s ebbs and flows and why she believes 400m is the hardest race on the trac
In an event she labels special and in which she won four Olympic and five World Championships gold medals, Jamaican-born American Sanya Richards-Ross hopes there's a surge around the corner to elevate the 400m from its recent lull. Aside from Wayde van Niekerk breaking Michael Johnson’s world record at the 2016 Rio Games and Shaunae Miller-Uibo defending her Rio title in Tokyo, there have been few 400m headline-makers in recent times.
In a chat from Bengaluru where she is the international event ambassador of TCS World 10K, Sanya, the 2012 London Games 400m champion who ran the distance under 50 seconds an incredible 49 times, talks about the event’s ebbs and flows and why she believes 400m is the hardest race on the track. Excerpts:
Other than Shaunae, we haven't seen someone really dominate the 400m of late, isn't it?
I can't figure out why athletes haven't been able to consistently run sub-50 and get under the 49-second barrier as well. But I think that's going to change. I feel like there's going to be a surge in the event that we've been longing for. Shaunae obviously has done great things in the event, but especially on the American side, it's time for someone to really step up. There have been so many advancements in the shoes, and we're seeing that pay off for athletes as far as times are concerned. So I think we're also going to see better times.
We've had some of the biggest track and field names in the 400m — from Johnson to Allyson Felix to yourself. How has the 400m evolved?
Every event has its ebbs and flows. The 400m hurdles has really surged in the last couple of years where we've seen some really talented men and women do some mind-blowing things. It's time now for the 400m to get back to the centre stage. And there are so many athletes with potential to make it spicy again. And of course, there's Shaunae, once she comes back after the baby. I think the vigour is coming back to the event, and I'm excited to see what's in store.
What explains the consistent record-breaking times in 400m hurdles by the likes of Karsten Warholm, Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad in the last few years?
When you look at Sydney specifically, the speed that she brings to the event, we hadn't seen that prior. Dalilah first set the pace, and then Sydney came right behind her. I didn't think we'd see 50. (Sydney's PB is 50.68) in my lifetime over hurdles! So I really don’t know how to explain it. But it's beautiful to witness it, to see what she (Sydney) is doing, what she's capable of continuing in that event and also, for me, in the 400m.
Indian athletics too isn’t quite brimming with names in the quarter-mile. Hima Das switched from 400m to sprints but hasn't been able to make an impact. How challenging can that switch from 400m to sprints be?
The thing that my coach always used to say is that strength and speed are synonymous. So as you're getting stronger in the 400, it should help you in the sprints. But it's also about rhythm, right? So it's going to take some time for your body to adjust to the 400, which is getting out hard, then relaxing and then picking up speed again to an all-out burst. That's going to take some time. But I do think the strength from the 400 does pay off in the shorter sprints. So it shouldn't be too hard of a transition — it’s just about getting your body more used to it and to the competition.
As for Indians in the 400m, I believe that there has to be some sort of history in the country, and people have to see people that look like them do great things in the event. So as running gets more and more popular in India and there are more resources poured into supporting the young talent, that's when you'll see that big progress made in those events.
Is it also because 400m is more technically demanding and taxing on the body?
Yes, for sure! (laughs) The 400m, most of us say, is the hardest race on the track. That's because it is finding that perfect blend of speed and endurance. Most of the times you'll find one or the other in an athlete. To find both can be really challenging. It's also mentally taxing to go out there and pace the race perfectly and not give too much on the front end and lose it all in the final 100. It can be a really technical and mentally gruelling race. So, yeah, it's a special event for sure.
Jamaica after Usain Bolt has seen a bit of a hole in the men, but Elaine Thompson-Herah, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson swept the women's 100m in Tokyo. How do you see their rivalry?
It's just been incredible what Shelly-Ann has done leading that contingent of Jamaican sprinters. It's phenomenal. Like I said, there's ebbs and flows in events, and it's the same with countries. When Bolt dominated, it seemed like it was never going to end. And now that his era has ended it has given rise to the Americans to be able to step in and win medals. I expect that to happen on the women's side too.
Is it therefore important to have that iconic figure for a particular sport or event in the country? Jamaica had Bolt, India now has Neeraj Chopra...
It's supremely important. I remember when I was growing up in Jamaica, the entire country shut down during the Olympics. You could feel that love and support, and athletes can feel that too miles away. And so you have this young athlete who knows that the country is watching, and he/she wants to be a star. Then it just keeps building on this cycle that makes champions.
You moved from Jamaica to the US in your teens. What was the difference in training like?
I felt like I got the best of both worlds. Being in Jamaica at such a young age, the foundation that was built — because track and field was so popular — when I was in prep school, I was already working with a national Jamaican coach. So the fundamentals I learnt at such a young age were priceless. And then I moved to the US where I got to have some of the best resources and universities with some of the best trainers and facilities. Then to get to work with a legendary coach Clyde Hart (who also coached Johnson), I don't think I could've asked for more. Track and field in the US isn't as popular at a young age. So I got nurtured in a way that very few do, and then I got the benefit from all the resources that Team USA has through college and beyond. So yes, it was a dream.