23 August, 2020
Michael Johnson-Marie-Jose Perec-Cathy Freeman-Alberto Juantorena
Michael Johnson-Marie-Jose Perec-Cathy Freeman-Alberto Juantorena

World Records - Wayde van Niekerk and Marita Koch:

Icons - Michael Johnson, Marie-Jose Perec, Cathy Freeman and Alberto Juantorena :


The 400-metre dash is perhaps the most glamorous sprinting event in athletics. It is one of the original events at the Ancient Olympics identified as the‘diaulos’, a race around two marks on a course roughly equivalent to the current 400m.

The 400m for men has been in every Olympic Games since Athens 1896 while women first contested the distance at the Tokyo 1964 edition. The men’s world record is held by Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa, with a time of 43.03 secs while Marita Koch from East Germany holds the women’s world record with a time of47.60 secs.

On a standard outdoor running track, it is one lap around the track. Runners start in staggered positions and race in separate lanes. In many countries, athletes previously competed in the 440-yard dash (402.336m) which is a quarter of a mile and was referred to as the ‘quarter-mile’- instead of the 400m (437.445 yards), though this distance is now obsolete. Like other sprints, the 400m involves the use of starting blocks. The runners take up position in the blocks on the ‘ready’ command, adopt a more efficient starting posture, which preloads their muscles on the ‘set’ command and stride forwards from the blocks upon hearing the starter’s pistol.

The blocks allow the runners to begin more powerfully and thereby contribute to their overall sprint speed capability. Maximum sprint speed capability is a significant contributing factor to success in the event. In addition, athletes require substantial speed endurance and the ability to cope well with high amounts of lactic acid to sustain a fast speed over a whole lap. A reaction time - measured by sensors in the starting pistol and on the blocks - of less than 0.1 is deemed a false start and runners will be recalled with the responsible athlete disqualified. A runner can also be disqualified for stepping out of the designated lane.

Most Successful 400m Athletes

The following seven athletes have succeeded in winning three or more 400m victories at the Olympic Games and World Championships.

Six Gold Medals: Michael Johnson (USA) - Olympic Champion in 1996 and 2000, World Champion in 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1999.

Four Gold Medals: Marie-Jose Perec (FRA) - Olympic Champion in 1992 and 1996, World Champion in 1991 and 1995.

Three Gold Medals: Cathy Freeman (AUS) - Olympic Champion in 2000, World Champion in 1997 and 1999; Jeremy Wariner (USA)- Olympic Champion in 2004, World Champion in 2005 and 2007; Christine Ohuruogu (GBR)- Olympic Champion in 2008, World Champion in 2007 and 2013; LaShawn Merritt (USA) - Olympic Champion in 2008, World Champion in 2009 and 2013; Wayde van Niekerk (RSA) - Olympic Champion in 2016, World Champion in 2015 and 2017.

Michael Johnson of the USA

Michael Duane Johnson (185 cm, 79 kg) is considered one of the greatest and most consistent sprinters in the history. Born September 13, 1967, he won four Olympic and eight World Championship gold medals. Michael Johnson is the only male athlete in history to win both the 200m and 400m events at the same Olympics, a feat he accomplished at Atlanta 1996. Johnson is also the only man to successfully defend his Olympic title in the 400m, having done so at Sydney 2000. He is also the greatest one-lap runner.

He held the world and Olympic records in the 200m and 400m, as well as the world record in the indoor 400m. He also once held the world’s best time in the 300m. Aside from his Olympic success, Johnson’s eight gold medals at the World Championships is tied with Carl Lewis for the third most gold medals won by an athlete, after Usain Bolt and Allyson Felix. He holds 14 of the top 25 times for the 400m. He broke 44.0 secs for the 400m 22 times, more than twice as many times as any other athlete. The 4 x 400m relay world record was anchored by Johnson.

In 1991 at the World Championships in Tokyo, Johnson earned his first world title by winning the 200m. Two weeks before the1992 Summer Olympics, Johnson and his agent both contracted food poisoning at a restaurant in Spain. He was the favorite to win the 200m going into the Olympics, but he failed to reach the final by 0.16 secs. Nevertheless, he was able to take part in the 4x400m relay in which they won a gold medal with a new world-record time of 2:55.74.

He won the 1993 US title in the 400m and followed it with world titles in both the 400m and 4x400m relay. His 42.91 secs split time in the 4x400m relay remains the fastest 400m in history. At the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg, he won his first 200m and 400m “double”. No elite-level male track athlete had accomplished this in a major meet in the 20th century. At the end he made it a “triple” by adding another title in the 4x400m relay.

In 1996, Johnson was 29 when he ran the 200m in19.66 sec at the US Olympic Trials, breaking the record that had stood for 17 years. Johnson entered the 1996 Olympic finals donning a custom-designed pair of golden-colored Nike racing spikes made with Zytel, causing him to be nicknamed “The Man with the Golden Shoes.” The manufacturer of the spikes claims they weighed three ounces (85g) each. The left shoe was a US size 10.5 while the right shoe was a US size 11, to account for Johnson’s shorter left foot.

On July 29, 1996, Johnson easily captured the400m Olympic title with an Olympic record time of 43.49 sec. At the 200m final on August 1, he ran the opening 100m in 10.12 and finished the race in a world-record time of 19.32. Johnson won the 400m at the 1997 World Championships in Athens. He won his fourth 400m world title with a new world-record time of 43.18 secs at the relatively late age of 31 years and 11 months, which stood for nearly 17 years. Johnson ended his career at the Sydney Olympics by winning the gold in 400m at the age of 33 years 12 days, earning the distinction of being the oldest Olympic gold medallist at any track event shorter than 5000m.

Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa

Wayde van Niekerk, born July 15, 1992 is a sprinter who competes in the 200m and 400m. In the 400m, he is the current world and Olympic record holder and Olympic champion. He also holds the world-best time in the 300m. He was the silver medallist in the 400m at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. He also represented South Africa at the 2013 and 2015 Athletics World Championships. At the 2015 World Championships, he won the gold medal in the 400m. He defended his title two years later, in London, where he also won the silver in the 200m..

In the 2016 Olympic Games men’s 400m, Van Niekerk won the gold medal with a world record time of 43.03 secs at age 24 years and 30 days, beating the time of 43.18 secs set by Michael Johnson during the 1999 World Championships in Seville, Spain.

In 2016, Van Niekerk became the first sprinter in history to have run the 100m under 10 secs, 200m under 20 secs and 400m under 44 secs. In 2017, after a 30.81 secs victory in the seldom-run 300m, breaking Michael Johnson’s world-best time of 30.85 which was set in 2000, Van Niekerk became the only sprinter in history to have run sub-10, sub-20, sub-31 and sub-44 performances at 100m, 200m, 300m and 400m respectively.

Alberto Juantorena of Cuba

Alberto Juantorena (190 cm, 84 kg), born December 3, 1950 is a Cuban. He is the only athlete to win both the 400m and 800m Olympic titles, which he achieved in 1976. He was ranked as world’s best runner in the 400m in 1974 and 1976 -1978 and in the 800m in 1976 -1977 and was chosen as the Athlete of the Year in 1976and 1977.

He reached the semi-finals of the 400m event at the 1972 Summer Olympics and proceeded to win a gold medal at the 1973 World University Games in the 400m. He was unbeaten in 1973 and 1974. He only seriously took up running the 800m in 1976, so few thought he was a candidate for the Olympic gold. He made it to the 800m Olympic final and led the field for most of the race, eventually winning in a world record time of 1:43.50. He was the first non-English athlete to win the Olympic gold in this event. Three days later he also won the 400m, setting a low-altitude world record at 44.26.

In 1977 he set another world record in the 800m, running 1:43.44 in Sofia at the World University Games. He also won both the 400m and 800m at the 1977 IAAF World Cup. In 1978 he was unbeaten at the 400m. Injuries hampered his training leading up to the 1980 Olympics where he just missed out on a medal in the 400m, placed fourth. He returned to training with a view to competing in the 1984 Olympics but the boycott ended his last chance of competing at the Olympics.

Marie-Jose Perec of France

Marie-José Pérec, born May 9, 1968 specialized in the 200m and the 400m and is a three-time Olympic gold medallist. She won the 1991 World Championships 400m title in Tokyo and repeated the feat at the 1995 World Championships. She was the 400m champion at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Four years later she entered the 200m and 400m events at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and won both, thus achieving the second-ever Olympic 200m/400m gold medal double.

Her 400m Olympic victory in 1996 was in an Olympic record time of 48.25 secs and it took 23 years to surpass her mark. In addition to her Olympic and World titles, she also won the 400m title and was apart of the gold medal-winning 4x400m relay at the 1994 European Championships in Helsinki.

Cathy Freeman of Australia

Catherine Astrid Salome Freeman (164 cm, 56 kgs), born February 16, 1973 is a sprinter, who specialized in the 400m. She became the Olympic champion for 400m at Sydney 2000, at which she lit the Olympic Flame. Cathy Freeman began athletics at the age of five and by her early teens she had a collection of national titles in the 100m, 200m, high jump and long jump.

In 1988, she was awarded a scholarship to Fairholme College in Toowoomba. In a competition in 1989, she ran the 100m in 11.67 secs. In 1990, she was chosen as a member of 4x100m relay team for the 1990 Commonwealth Games. The team won the gold, making her the first ever Aboriginal Commonwealth gold medallist as well as one of the youngest at 16. She was then selected for the 1990 World Junior where she reached the semi-finals of the 100m and final of the 400m.

She competed in her second World Junior in Seoul, South Korea and won silver in the 200m. In 1992, she travelled to her first Olympic Games, reaching the second round of her specialty event of the 400m. At the 1993 World Championships, she competed in the 200m, reaching the semi-finals. The year 1994 was her breakthrough season, when she entered into the world’s elite, competing at the 1994 Commonwealth Games winning gold in both 200m and 400m. She also competed as a member of the 4x100m, winning the silver. She also set all-time personal bests in the 100m (11.24) and 200m (22.25).

Freeman made more progress during the 1996 season, setting many personal bests. In 1997, she won the 400m at the World Championships in 49.77 secs. Upon her return in 1999, Freeman did not lose a single 400m. At the Sydney 2000 Olympics she took a victory lap, carrying both the Aboriginal and Australian flags. Also she made the final of the 200m. In 2002, she returned to the track to compete as a member of Australia’s victorious 4x400m team at the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

Marita Koch of East Germany

Marita Koch, born February 18, 1957, is a German athlete. During her career, she collected 16 world records in outdoor sprints as well as 14 world records in indoor events. Her record of 47.60 in the 400m, set on October 6, 1985, still stands. Koch, running in Lane Two, came out of the blocks at a scorching pace and eliminated the stagger on most of her competitors by the end of the first bend. Her 100m split was 11.3 secs, while her 200m split was 22.4 secs. At the halfway, she had completely destroyed most of a world class field. Her 300m was 34.1 secs, the all-time best performance. During the final stages, the original video footage only captured Koch and one other athlete who was trailing.

By the time she had turned 15, she was training under Wolfgang Meier who coached her entire career. Koch has held world records over several distances from the 50m to the 400m. She ran a 400m quarterfinal at the 1976 Olympics. She set her first world record in 1977 in Milan, when she ran a 400m indoors in 51.8 secs. In 1977, she set her first outdoor record at the 400m in 49.19 secs and topped this with another two world records within a month. In 1979, she became the first woman to run a 200m in under 22 secs. Her time of 21.71 secs stood as the world record for nine years.

At the Moscow 1980 Olympics, Koch won the gold in the 400m. Three weeks before the 1984 Olympic Games, she equalled her own record, but the boycott prevented her from competing. She also won the European Championships in the 400m in 1978, 1982 and 1986. As a member of East Germany’s relay teams, Koch also set more world records in the 4x100m in 1979 and 1983. The same team won silver in the 4x400m relay in the 1980 Olympic Games. They also set world records over the same distance in 1980, 1982 and 1984.


(The author possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc; his research interests encompasses Olympic Education, IOC and Sports; recipient of National and Presidential Accolades for Academic and Sports pursuits; he was a champion athlete who excelled in 400m)