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Naser’s run triggers talk of a world record

Bahrain's world champion in the spotlight after the quickest 400M run in 34 years.
Bahrains Salwa Eid Naser Reacts After Her Victory In The Women's 400m Final At The World Championships On Thursday
Bahrain’s Salwa Eid Naser reacts after her victory in the women’s 400M final at the World Championships on Thursday. IQ Photo: Vinod Divakaran

Twenty-three years ago, when Marie Jose-Perec ran 48.25 seconds to win the 400M gold at the Atlanta Olympic Games, many track and field pundits suggested that the time should be considered the world record.

Their reasoning was simple: the previous best timings in the event had been set by athletes from Eastern European nations with a history of institutionalised doping.

Marita Koch of erstwhile East Germany had run 47.60 in the World Cup at Canberra in 1985 to break the world record of 47.99 belonging to Czechoslavakia’s Jarmila Kratochilova, set two years earlier in Helsinki. They are the only two go below 48 seconds in the one-lap race.

The two women had a clutch of sub-49 second timings in their career but their achievements were always looked at with suspicion, even though they never tested positive.

With records of that era standing the test of time, especially in the 400M and the 800M (where Kratochilova’s 1:53.28 is the record since 1983), there have been calls to wipe off the old marks.

Perec’s time from Atlanta came into the picture in that context but the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) has been treading cautiously on the subject, understandably so. The question, however, pops up whenever an athlete runs a quick time and it was no surprise when it surfaced after an astonishing run by Salwa Eid Naser in the final of the 400M at the Doha World Championships.

Naser, representing Bahrain, clocked 48.14 seconds to be the third fastest runner of all-time on Thursday night at the Khalifa International Stadium. She was surprised, her rivals were stunned and the fans watching at the stadium and on television were simply in awe. As the athletes involved themselves put it, it was a crazy run.

Naser played it safe when asked whether her performance should be considered the fastest legal time. “You tell me,” she said, and went on to praise her rivals, Shaunae Miller-Uibo of Bahamas and Shericka Jackson of Jamaica.

“Running with these amazing ladies, I don’t think I would have done it alone. Especially against Shaunae Miller-Uibo, I always run for the best because she is a really strong athlete. I think they really pushed me to get this time.”

Miller-Uibo, the Olympic champion, was fancied to edge the less-experienced Naser. The Bahamas athlete had the world leading time of 49.05 seconds this season but Naser had been steadily advancing, winning the Diamond League title among a clutch of other races. At 19, she had won silver at the London World Championships and on Thursday, she became the youngest world champion in the event at 21. The surprising part was how she stayed strong in the straight despite a torrid early pace.

“My coach always said ‘you are gonna run really fast’ and I used to laugh,” said Naser, whose previous best was 49.08. “To be frank, I never expected that fast time. I was training hard but he kept talking to me, he never let me down. I didn’t think I would run that fast, but I thank God he never gave up on me and kept supporting me.”

The race was hard on Miller-Uibo, who had trained specifically for this event the whole season, leaving the 200M aside. She had a strong gold medal chance in the half-lap event but she will have to go home with a silver in her favourite event. On the positive side, her time of 48.37 was a big improvement on her previous best of 48.97. The two didn’t cross each other’s path this season but in future, the talk will be of their rivalry and whether they can break the world record.

Both Naser and Miller-Uibo believed they could.

“Definitely I am not going to say no, I am so close to it and I think, in time we can definitely get it. It’s still a little further away, 47.6, but I think it’s in our sight,” said Miller-Uibo.

Naser agreed. “Whenever I run with this fast lady, I always run fast times. A world record is definitely possible,” she said.

Thirty-four years have passed since Koch set her world record. Having run the fastest time since then, the focus will stay firmly on Naser as she heads to the Olympic year. Head-to-head rivalries have been pretty rare in track and field, with top athletes often avoiding each other on the circuit. If Naser and Miller-Uibo can buck that trend, the one-lap race could well witness a freshly-minted mark.