Who will succeed Wayde van Niekerk as men’s 400m champion?

Men 400m preview

World champion Steven Gardiner, Michael Norman and London 2012 hero Kirani James lead the contenders for the Olympic one-lap crown. Is van Niekerk’s world record under threat?

After an injury-marred Olympic cycle, Wayde van Niekerk failed to reach the final in the defence of his Olympic title from Rio 2016.

The South African smashed the world record to take gold five years ago, but another man will be crowned the one-lap king on Friday (5 August).

Reigning world champion Steven Gardiner leads the contenders for what promises to be a thrilling final.

And after 400m hurdles world records for Karsten Warholm and Sydney McLaughlin, could we see another mark fall at Tokyo 2020?

Read on to find out more about the challengers for the men’s 400m Olympic title.

Van Niekerk betters 400m world record
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South African Wayde van Niekerk smashes the men's 400m world record in winning the Olympic title at Rio 2016.

Gardiner aims for first half of famous Bahamian double

Steven Gardiner won the 400m at the 2019 World Championships in Doha in emphatic fashion, ahead of Fred Kerley who took 100m silver here in Tokyo.

He also came out on top in the strongest pre-Tokyo field this season, beating American pair Bryce Deadmon and Michael Norman at last month’s Istvan Gyulai Memorial in Hungary

With Shaunae Miller-Uibo heavily fancied to retain her 400m title from Rio, the Bahamas could be on course for a spectacular double in the one-lap event.

Gardiner has shown every sign of keeping his side of the bargain, coasting through the heats and semi-finals with seemingly plenty more in the tank.

He has already improved on his semi-final showing from Rio, and the ease with which he clocked 44.14 in the semis suggests that Wayde van Niekerk’s world record of 43.03 could be in danger.

DOHA, QATAR - OCTOBER 04: Steven Gardiner of the Bahamas reacts as he wins gold after the Men's 400 metres final during day eight of 17th IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 at Khalifa International Stadium on October 04, 2019 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
DOHA, QATAR - OCTOBER 04: Steven Gardiner of the Bahamas reacts as he wins gold after the Men's 400 metres final during day eight of 17th IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 at Khalifa International Stadium on October 04, 2019 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

Kirani James bids for repeat triumph

Gold at London 2012, silver at Rio 2016, gold again at Tokyo 2020?

Grenadian star Kirani James was diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder Graves’ disease in 2017 and used his recovery time to complete his business degree at the University of Alabama.

Like women’s 100m champion Gail Devers, he will need to take medication for the condition for the rest of his life.

He took time out in 2019 following the death of his mother, and needed the final day of the qualification window to make the Doha World Championships after some niggling injuries. Given that build-up, his fifth place behind Gardiner was more than respectable.

And he’s shown that he’s right back to his best in Tokyo, winning his semi-final in a very fast 43.88.

While that performance was not as effortless as Gardiner’s, the 28-year-old is sure to be right in the mix for a third Olympic medal.

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 02: Kirani James of Team Grenada reacts after he competes in the Men's 400 metres semi finals on day ten of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 02, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 02: Kirani James of Team Grenada reacts after he competes in the Men's 400 metres semi finals on day ten of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 02, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
2021 Getty Images

Can Michael Norman finally deliver?

Michael Norman has making headlines since he broke the indoor 400m record at the 2018 NCAA Championships, although his time of 44.52 was not ratified for technical reasons.

Just before turning pro, he clocked the sixth fastest 400m in history with 43.61 at the outdoor NCAAs.

The following year, he beat Noah Lyles in the Rome Diamond League 200m with a personal best of 19.70, and looked dominant over 400m although he was beaten by Fred Kerley in the U.S. Trials.

He went to Doha as the gold medal favourite but went out tamely in the semi-finals, perhaps feeling the effects of a long season.

In 2020, he made a rare attempt at the 100m and ran what turned out to be the year’s fastest time – 9.86 – in Fort Worth. That saw him join Wayde van Niekerk in going sub-10 for 100m, sub-20 for 200m and sub-44 for 400m. Fred Kerley has since made it an elite group of three.

While Norman has made the final in Tokyo, he has not looked nearly as impressive as his rivals with second place in both the heats and the semis. It could be that the 23-year-old is saving himself for a big run in the final.

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 01:  Michael Norman of Team United States reacts after competing in round one of the Men's 400m heats on day nine of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 01, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 01: Michael Norman of Team United States reacts after competing in round one of the Men's 400m heats on day nine of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 01, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Fast finisher Anthony Zambrano in line for another medal

With Mariana Pajon just failing to retain her BMX title, Colombia’s best hope of gold in Tokyo rests with Anthony Zambrano.

Don’t despair if the 23-year-old looks like he is beaten at halfway, because he fairly rattles home just as he did to pip Fred Kerley to silver at the 2019 World Championships.

He has already shown he is in great shape in the semi-finals, clocking a new South American record of 43.93 in the semi-finals behind Kirani James.

Zambrano may need another personal best to make the podium, but could he turn his world silver into Olympic gold?

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 02: Anthony Jose Zambrano of Team Colombia prepares to compete in the Men's 400 metres semi finals on day ten of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 02, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 02: Anthony Jose Zambrano of Team Colombia prepares to compete in the Men's 400 metres semi finals on day ten of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 02, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
2021 Getty Images