Mike Rowbottom

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jamaica’s sprint genius Herb McKenley, who was, and still is, the only man to simultaneously hold the world’s best times for the 100, 200 and 400 metres in the same year.

While other illustrious talents have had the potential to match that feat, including the current world 100m and 200m record holder, McKenley’s compatriot Usain Bolt, none have so far managed it.  

It seemed 2010 might be the year for Bolt to extend himself in one-lap running - something for which many, viewing his 1.95m (6ft 5in) form, believed he had been born.

Having reduced the respective 100 and 200m world records to 9.58sec and 19.19sec at the previous summer’s World Championships in Berlin - where they still stand - the then triple Olympic gold medallist was looking at a season without a global showpiece.

He had already indicated his dizzying potential by winning the 400m title at the Bridgetown CAC Junior Championships (under-17) in 2002, and the following year’s Carifta Games in Port of Spain.

Usain Bolt had huge but unrealised potential to extend his range to the 400 metres ©Getty Images
Usain Bolt had huge but unrealised potential to extend his range to the 400 metres ©Getty Images

In his autobiography Bolt explained how his coaches believed he was a natural 200/400m runner - and indeed he always professed that the former distance was his favourite. 

But he didn’t honestly fancy all the extra hard work required to run the longer distance. He himself used the word "lazy" in this case, with a self-deprecating grin.

He described how he made a deal with the man who guided his career, Glen Mills, that he’d try to branch out to the 100m, despite the fact that his height was thought to be against his chances of making swift starts, and that if things didn’t go well he would move up rather than down.

Things went pretty well from that point onwards.

That said, Bolt still gave glimpses of what he could do over 400m. 

He ran a personal best of 45.28sec in Kingston in 2007. 

And at the 2010 Gibson Relays in Jamaica, he ran a 4x400m relay anchor leg in 43.58 despite shutting down before the finish.

In December 2009, after being named as the BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year, Bolt had maintained: "The training for 400m is so much harder but I'm thinking about it."

All very tantalising. But Bolt never did extend his range in the way his coaches had originally envisaged.

The man whose world 200m record he had taken, Michael Johnson of the United States, certainly did manage to step up to the 400m. 

After claiming the Olympic double in these distances at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where he lowered his world 200m record to 19.32sec, Johnson went on to set a world 400m record of 43.18sec at the 1999 World Championships in Seville.

But Johnson didn’t manage to drop down from 200m with the same impact, albeit that, with a 1994 100m personal best of 10.09sec, he was hardly a slouch.

Herb McKenley's feat of having the fastest 100, 200 and 400m times in the same year has never been matched ©Getty Images
Herb McKenley's feat of having the fastest 100, 200 and 400m times in the same year has never been matched ©Getty Images

If anyone was going to be able to emulate McKenley’s achievement it seemed Wayde van Niekerk would be the man. 

The year after lowering Johnson’s 400m mark to 43.03sec in the Rio 2016 final - from lane eight - the South African demonstrated his athletic range by running bests of 9.94 in the 100m and 19.84 in the 200m, at which he earned a silver medal to go with his 400m gold at the London 2017 World Championships.

But on October 31, 2017, playing a charity rugby match, he ruptured his Anterior Cruciate Ligament, and despite strenuous rehabilitation he has never been the same athlete since, despite making a return to top class competition.

Van Niekerk was the first man to go sub-10 for the 100m, sub-20 for the 200m and sub-44 for the 400m. 

This marvel of athleticism was matched on July 2020 when Michael Norman of the United States, then 22, ran 9.86 for the 100m. 

The previous year he had run 19.70 for the 200m and 43.45 for what was deemed to be his specialist distance of 400m.

On June 21 last year another American joined Van Niekerk and Norman in their special achievement. 

Fred Kerley’s 200m clocking of 19.90sec at the US Olympic trials meant he had completed his set, having run a first sub-10 100m of 9.91sec two months earlier.

Up to that point Kerley had been seen as a 400m specialist, having come to wider notice in 2017 when he reduced the National Collegiate Athletic Association record to 43.70, taking three tenths of a second off the 25-year-old mark set by the 1992 Olympic champion Quincy Watts.

Fred Kerley, centre, the Tokyo 2020 100m silver medallist, is seeking a 100/200m double at the Oregon22 World Athletics Championships ©Getty Images
Fred Kerley, centre, the Tokyo 2020 100m silver medallist, is seeking a 100/200m double at the Oregon22 World Athletics Championships ©Getty Images

Kerly’s efforts in the shorter sprints earned him an Olympic 100m silver medal in Tokyo last summer behind the surprise winner, Marcell Jacobs of Italy, and the two are due to meet again when the Oregon22 World Athletics Championships start on Friday (July 15).

Now 26, Kerley is seeking a 100/200m double in Eugene. 

"The bigger plan is still the 400m in the coming years," he said in an interview with FloTrack.

"Right now I’m just focusing on getting my speed up so I can make history."

When McKenley made his own bit of history in 1947 he held respective times for the 100, 200 and 400 metres of 10.3sec, 20.4 and 46.2.

The following year he would set successive world 400m records of 46.0 and 45.9sec either side of the London Olympics - yet he left those Games without any gold.

Days before the Games, McKenley suffered a scare when he strained a groin muscle. 

He recovered, and first - perhaps questionably - contested the 200 metres, placing fourth in the final.

More than 50 years after, McKenley told the Jamaica Observer that he believed over-confidence cost him the gold medal in the 400 metres final.

"I started out very well. I came off the first turn just eating up everybody," he recalled.

He ran the first 200 metres in 21.1 seconds and appeared well on the way to victory when he decided he would not only win the gold medal but better the world record.

"I felt so easy and relaxed I completely changed my way of running and decided like I was going after 45 seconds flat," he said.

But 40 metres from the tape, McKenley hit what he described as "a brick wall" adding: "I found myself shortening and couldn't do anything about it."

Meanwhile his 6ft 4in team-mate Arthur Wint was challenging. 

"I could hear Arthur coming... He was like that... you could always hear his footsteps coming... boom, boom, boom, boom... gaining all the time and I couldn't go any faster ... then he went by and took the gold.

"I always thought it happened because of my over-confidence," McKenley said.

At the Helsinki 1952 Olympics, McKenley’s fast finish almost - but not quite - won him the 100m title, with Lindy Remigino of the United States getting gold after both were timed at 10.4.

It was the same story in the 400m, where he and compatriot George Rhoden clocked 45.9sec but the latter took the decision.

There was gold at the end of the rainbow for the multi-talented McKenley however as he ran an inspired leg in the 4x400m relay final - a then unheard of split of 44.6sec - to put Jamaica in a winning position they capitalised upon.

"I was in heaven," McKenley said. 

"My goal always was to be a gold medal winner and at the end it was as if it was so designed that I should win my only gold medal at that last opportunity."