The day after Kirani James traded nametags with double-amputee Oscar Pistorius, he picked up an even more valuable piece of Olympic history: the first medal for his tiny country of Grenada.
Pretty nice color, too. Gold.
The 19-year-old sprinter emerged as the accidental world champion last year and backed up that win with another one on the biggest stage Monday night, running the 400 meters in 43.94 seconds.
With that, the celebration was on, because James had no doubt that back home in the small fishing community of Gouyave the people were partying.
”Probably crazy at home,” said James, a two-time NCAA champion at Alabama. ”I don’t think any words can describe the celebration out there. This is a huge step … going out there and putting us on the map.”
Not only his country, but himself, too, by ending the Americans’ impressive string of wins in the 400.
Before this race, an Olympic gold medal in the event was almost a lock for the U.S., which had won the past seven titles, dating to 1984. But none of the three American entrants qualified for Monday’s final, including 2008 Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt, who pulled up with a hamstring injury in his opening heat and was sent home for treatment.
For years, James has been living in the shadow of Merritt. Even when James beat him last summer at the world championships, the win came with a caveat: Merritt wasn’t at his best because he was just coming off a doping suspension.
The showdown never happened.
With Merritt on the sideline, James had no one to really push him. Well, except the clock as he beat his nearest competitor, Luguelin Santos of the Dominican Republic, by 0.52 seconds. Lalonde Gordon of Trinidad and Tobago got the bronze.
A letdown that Merritt wasn’t in the field?
”Kirani respects the heck out of LaShawn. Unfortunately, when you get to the games like this, these are the kinds of things that happen,” said Harvey Glance, who coaches James. ”Would Kirani have liked to have competed against him? I’m sure he would, because he’s a competitor. Did it make the job a little easier? Of course it did.
”For a 19-year-old to have all the pressure of the world on his shoulder and do this? We’ve talked about this for the last two years and he saw the big picture and he came out and delivered.”
In a convincing way, too.
”This win says I’m on the right track,” James said.
That could include capturing more titles and maybe even one day breaking Michael Johnson’s 400-meter record of 43.18 seconds. But that’s a conversation for another time, when he’s no longer celebrating the victory that gave Grenada its first medal.
Besides picking up the gold, James came out of the competition with a souvenir. A cherished one at that.
Shortly after winning his heat Sunday, James approached Pistorius — who didn’t advance to the final — and asked to trade bibs.
The South African sprinter known as ”Blade Runner” is inspirational to James. Pistorius runs on carbon fiber blades.
The exchange was a classy gesture.
”Just spur of the moment,” James said. ”Oscar should be a huge inspiration for everybody, whether you’re a track athlete or a normal person. You can be somebody no matter what kind of disability you have.
”Being out there and competing against Oscar is a huge honor for me. He’s a great guy, very down to earth. I’m happy to be here and compete against Oscar.”