The First Ever Sub-45 sec 400m, by Justin Clouder

Who was the first man to run under 45 seconds for 400m?

This ought to be an easy enough question to answer, but if track history and statistics was that easy it wouldn't be nearly so interesting. This particular question depends on your prefered flavour of stats - straight or regular course? 400m or converted 440y? Auto or hand timing? Counting relay legs? With various permutations there at least six potential claimants over 20 years.

The first quarter mile covered in 45 seconds or less was by Herb McKenley, the great Jamaican sprinter, on a straight boardwalk at Long Branch, NJ on 23rd August 1947. With a wind behind him, he covered 440y in 45.0 seconds. 440y is just over 2m further than 400m - the accepted practice is to take off 0.3 from a 440y hand time to get the 400m equivalent, or 0.26 for an auto time. So this performance was worth 44.7 for 400m, albeit straight and wind assisted. The WR at the time was 46.3, which McKenley reduced to 46.0 in 1948. Incidentaly, McKenley was a terrible judge of pace. He ran 4 WR times in the 1940s and 1950s, all of which consisted of splits of around 21.0 and 25.0. Not surprisingly, he was caught on the run-in in the OG of both 1948 and 1952.

In 1952 McKenley produced a blistering 44.6 relay leg to help the Jamaican team to a narrow win and huge WR in OG. This was the first ever sub 45 sec leg, and was crucial as Jamaica beat the USA 3:03.9 to 3:04.0, with both final leg athetes running the same time (45.5).

The first WR under 45.0 was run by both Otis Davis and Carl Kauffman in their epic 1960 OG race. The were both given 44.9, a landmark time. But the auto timing told a different story - 45.07 and 45.08. Three years later Adolph Plummer ran 44.9 for 440y, worth 44.6 for 400m, in Tempe, and in 1964 Mike Larrabee won the US OT in 44.9 (Ollan Cassall was third in this race in 45.6). It was these records (there were separate records for 400m and 440y at the time) that Tommie Smith broke with his epic 44.5 400m (en route to 44.8 for 440y) described in an earlier post.

For the first auto time under 45 there are two contenders. In 1966 Wendell Mottley of Trinidad won the Commonwealth 440y title in Kingston in 45.08, which with the standard 0.26 differential knocked off equals 44.82 for 400m. The following year Lee Evans won the 400m at the Winnipeg PAG in 44.95, the first unqualified, undisputable sub 45 sec 400m time with auto timing. Standards moved on pretty quick - just a year later he was also the first man under 44 sec!

So who is it to be? McKenley for his boardwalk or relay leg? Davis and Kauffman for their hand time? Or Plummer for his 440y hand time? Mottley for his auto timed but converted 440y time? Or Evans? You could argue for them all, which is why track history is such fun.

Justin Clouder