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For first time since 1980, no American winner for Olympic 400

Like rooting for the underdog? You've got choices

For the first time since the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, boycotted by the United States in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, there will not be an American winner of the men's 400 meters. In fact, there will be no American medalists, something that has not happened – Moscow aside – since the 1920 Games in Antwerp.

Defending champion LaShawn Merritt went out of this year's Olympic Games in the first round of the 400 meters qualifying, admitting he had been unable to recover from a hamstring injury incurred earlier this year. The two other Americans in the event, Tony McQuay and Bryshon Nellum, failed to qualify for the final, and were never gold medal favorites.

Four years ago in Beijing, Merritt led Jeremy Wariner and David Neville across the finish line to an American sweep of medals, and in 2004 in Athens, it was Wariner who won gold, with compatriots Otis Harris and Derrick Brew in the silver and bronze medal slots.

Before that, Michael Johnson won gold in both Sydney and Atlanta; and in Barcelona in 1992, Quincy Watts and Steve Lewis finished in the gold and silver positions. There was another American medal sweep in Seoul in 1988, with Lewis beating Butch Reynolds and Danny Everett for top honors, and Los Angeles saw Alonzo Babers on the top step of the podium, and Antonio McKay in third.

Then Moscow, which was won by Soviet runner Viktor Markin, with Australian Rick Mitchell in second, and East Germany's Frank Schaffer in third.

But the last runner to beat Americans to the finish line of an Olympic final was Cuban legend Alberto 'El Caballo' Juantorena, who won not only the 400 meters in Montreal in 1976, but also the 800, an extraordinary double that has never been attempted by a male runner since. Juantorena was joined on the medal stand by Americans Fred Newhouse and Herman Frazier.

Before Juantorena, Vince Matthews won for the U.S. in 1972, Lee Evans set the world record in winning in Mexico City in 1968, Otis Davis won in Rome in 1960, and Charles Jenkins earned gold in Melbourne in 1956.

In 1952, Jamaican George Rhoden defeated his great compatriot Herb McKenley, with American Ollie Matson in third place, and in 1948, Jamaican Arthur Wint beat McKenley, with American Mal Whitfield winning bronze.

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And then it was Americans again, Archie Williams in Berlin in 1936, Bill Carr in Los Angeles in 1932, and Ray Barbuti in Amsterdam in 1928.

Eric Liddell, famous as one of the two main protagonists in Chariots of Fire, won gold in 1924, and South Africa's Bevil Rudd led that non-American sweep of medals in Antwerp in 1924.

The 400 was won by Americans in each of the early editions of the Olympic Games – in Athens in 1896, Paris in 1900, St. Louis in 1904 and Stockholm in 1912 – with the exception of London in 1908, when British runner Wyndham Halswelle earned gold in a walkover, with no other medals awarded. In the final, Halswelle was impeded (the 400 was not run in lanes at the time) by American John Carpenter, and the race was ordered re-run, but the Americans declined to participate and Halswelle was the only competitor.

Going into the final, Grenadian world champion Kirani James will be the favorite, but there is no doubt the winner, and all the other medalists, will come from small nations, measured by population. Steven Solomon, representing Australia, will have 22 million of his compatriots hoping he ends up on the medal stand. In comparison, the population of Grenada is just over 100,000.

Belgium, population 11 million, is represented in the final by Kevin and Jonathan Borlee, who will divide their compatriots' support between them, and Bahamas, population 350,000, is represented by Chris Brown and Demetrius Pinder. Rounding out the field are Lalonde Gordon of Trinidad and Tobago, population 1.2 million, and Santos Luguelin of the Dominican Republic, population 10 million.

If you like to root for the underdog, you've got a lot of choices. But one sentimental favorite, South Africa's Oscar Pistorius, failed to qualify for the final. The double-amputee, dubbed the "Blade Runner," can still medal in the 4x400-meter relay.

Roberto De Vido writes cartoons and comics about politics, sports (and life) from a small fishing and farming village an hour southwest of Tokyo.

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1 comment on this story

Aug 6, 2012, 9:59 am
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I understand the caveats about the ‘80 boycott being in the story, but to me it counts. If you don’t show up, you don’t win.

In my mind, the Olympics has NEVER been an appropriate forum for anyone’s politics. There’s a time and a place for everything, and when it comes to politics, the Olympics is neither. The Olympics is about athletics, nothing more, nothing less. It’s about your own national pride, and showing the world your best athletes. It’s about the world seeing the best athletes at the best athletic competitions the world has to offer on the world’s biggest stage.

I am ashamed of my country for boycotting in ‘80, and equally ashamed of all our athletes in years past who have done idiotic hand gestures while on the medal podium.

I am relieved and pleased that no one seems to be attempting to use the 2012 Olympics as a political platform. I hope that continues.

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“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

— 1924 Olympic 400 meters champion Eric Liddell