Since 1912, the men’s 400-meter hurdles world record has been officially broken or tied 21 times – 16 times by Americans. To put it another way, non-Americans have owned or shared the world mark for a total of roughly 15 years out more than 100 since the IAAF first recognized a 400-meter hurdles world record.
At the time of that initial recognition, the world’s best-ever performance was four years old. American Charles Bacon was already the unofficial world record-holder in the summer of 1908, when he ran the 400 hurdles in 55.8 seconds. Shortly thereafter, he pulled away from fellow American Harry Hillman after the 10th hurdle to win the 1908 Olympic gold medal in 55 seconds flat. When the IAAF began recognizing world records four years later, Bacon’s Olympic performance was ratified as the official world standard.
Bacon’s mark stood until another American, Frank Loomis, won the 1920 Olympic final in 54 seconds. Sweden’s Sten Pettersson then became the first non-American to set the 400 hurdles mark, posting a time of 53.8 seconds in a Paris meet in 1925. The U.S. took the record back in 1927, when John Gibson’s victory in a 440-yard hurdles race, in 52.6 seconds, was accepted as the 400-meter hurdles world record (the 440-yard race totals 402.3 meters).
World Record Controversy
Morgan Taylor of the U.S. lowered the record to 52 seconds in 1928. His name remained in the record books for six years, even though two hurdlers technically posted faster times at the 1932 Olympics. Ireland’s Robert Tisdall won the gold medal in Los Angeles in a time of 51.67 seconds, while American Glenn Hardin was second in 51.85. Under the IAAF rules at that time, Tisdall’s time wasn’t accepted as a world record because he struck a hurdle. Additionally, because world record times were only recorded in tenths of seconds, Hardin’s time was rounded up to 52.0, leaving him tied with Taylor. The IAAF soon eliminated its hurdle-striking rule and currently gives Tisdall credit for being the first 400-meter hurdler to run below 52 seconds.
Meanwhile, Hardin pushed Taylor out of the books in 1934 by running 51.8 seconds at the AAU Championships in June and then improved the mark to 50.6 in July, in Stockholm. Hardin’s latter time stood for more than 19 years. In 1953, Yuriy Lituyev of the Soviet Union chipped 0.2 from Hardin’s time, setting a new mark of 50.4 seconds in a Budapest meet. American Glenn Davis, the first two-time Olympic champion in the 400-meter hurdles, broke the 50-second barrier and set a new standard of 49.5 seconds in 1956. Davis lowered the mark to 49.2 in 1958. As of 2014 he remains the only man to hold world records in both the 400 hurdles and the straight 400 meters.
Italy’s Salvatore Morale matched Davis’s time in 1962 and remained in the books for two years before another American, Rex Cawley, posted a time of 49.1 seconds in 1964. The record was broken twice in 1968, first by Geoff Vanderstock, whose 48.8-second performance at the U.S. Olympic Trials was the first-ever sub-49-second performance. Great Britain’s David Hemery then posted a time of 48.1 seconds to become the surprise winner of the 1968 Olympic gold medal in Mexico City. Hemery’s mark was surpassed by another unexpected Olympic champion, Uganda’s John Akii-Bua, who won the 1972 gold medal in 47.8 seconds.
Moses Leads the Way
The 400 hurdles record suffered only a cosmetic alteration when the IAAF changed its rules to accept only electronically-timed races for world record purposes. Akii-Bua’s record remained on the books, but was now listed as 47.82 seconds. It survived until the next Olympics, in Montreal in 1976, when Edwin Moses took the gold in 47.64 seconds, bringing the record back to the U.S. Moses, who won 122 consecutive 400 hurdles races between 1977 and 1987, lowered the world standard three more times, scoring his eventual personal best of 47.02 in Koblenz in 1983.
In 1992, American Kevin Young became the sixth Olympic gold medalist to simultaneously break the world 400-meter hurdles mark (a total that doesn’t include Tisdall’s performance in 1932). Young – using what was then an unusual, alternating 12- and 13-step stride pattern – ran away from his competition in Barcelona and broke through the 47-second barrier to win in 46.78 seconds.