British quartet of Black, Redmond, Regis and Akabusi etched their names into athletics folklore with stirring 4x400m victory 30 years ago

It is 30 years since Roger Black, Derek Redmond, John Regis and Kriss Akabusi combined to produce one of the greatest moments in the history of British athletics when they won the 4x400m title at the World Championships in Tokyo.

A masterclass of strategy and tactics, the quartet flipped traditional relay theory on its head – against their team management’s wishes – by placing the strongest runner, Black, on the first leg and a veteran 400m hurdler, Akabusi, on the anchor.

Yet the plan worked to perfection and when Akabusi stormed past individual world 400m champion Antonio Pettigrew in the final metres of the last leg it was the first time the United States had been beaten in the final of a world or Olympic men’s 4x400m since the 1952 Helsinki Games.

Since their famous victory on September 1, 1991, the British athletes have been in demand on the after-dinner and corporate function speeches circuit. The planning that went into producing such an unexpected and inspirational performance, after all, carries lessons that can be used in many areas of life. Do they ever get weary of talking about it, though?

“We never tire of it,” says Black. “We never will tire of it. And we are all incredibly grateful and lucky enough to be connected and part of such an amazing race.

“As the years go by you realise how amazing it really was because people remember it whenever we go. And not all relay races get remembered!”

I am privileged enough to have an audience with all four members of the team via a video call and before my interview I revisit the race on YouTube. I am pretty familiar with it anyway, but one new thing jumps out at me. David Coleman, the doyen of athletics commentators, has a dubious and doubtful tone to his voice throughout.

“I think David Coleman epitomised what the general public and even our management were thinking when we came up with the idea to change the way we did relay running,” says Akabusi.

Conventional wisdom at the time placed the strongest runner on the last leg and next best on the first leg with the weakest in the two middle legs. This meant Black, who had finished runner-up to Pettigrew in the 400m three days earlier, was expected to run the anchor with Redmond on the opening leg.

However the athletes decided they had to put the Americans under pressure from the start with Black and then Redmond trying to establish a lead before Regis, a 200m specialist and rookie 400m runner, attempted to keep the Brits in contention on the third stage before the combative Akabusi went toe-to-toe with Pettigrew on the final stage.

Redmond remembers Frank Dick, the British head coach, arguing for a traditional set-up with Black on the anchor. “Frank said he was trying to protect the silver but our response was that we were trying to win the gold. And, if it goes wrong, we’ll pick up that silver anyway, so we couldn’t lose.

“We could lose the race and win silver, which everyone expected. Or we could win the race.”

Akabusi argues: “There was no doubt that if we had run the traditional way with our best guy on the last leg and the next best guy on the first leg and with myself and John in the middle then we would have got a medal but it would have been silver or bronze.”

Kriss Akabusi world 4x400m 1991

Kriss Akabusi beats Antonio Pettigrew to the line (Mark Shearman)

Regis adds: “When we were first discussing the order, I was thinking ‘holy moly, why are we putting Roger first?’ Old tradition came to the fore (in my mind) but then Kriss made the point that usually the Americans are 10-15m clear after the first leg and the gold medal is down the street. So to put our best guy on the first leg suddenly began to make so much more sense because you’ve got to be in the game in order to be in with a chance of winning the game.”

The quartet were – and remain to this day – close friends and they believed in each other completely. To outsiders, they had barely no chance against an imperious American team whose only ‘losses’ at global level during nearly half a century had been at the boycotted 1980 Olympics and the 1972 Olympics when disqualifications and injuries in the individual 400m meant they could not field a team in the final.

“We sat down and worked it out and all four of us individually knew exactly what we had to do,” says Black. “Every single one of us did the exact job we were asked to do. We could have all made mistakes too but we were confident in each other and ourselves.

“Kriss really started the conversation by saying ‘look, guys, I’m in the shape of my life, put me on that fourth leg’ and there were no doubts in my mind that Kriss wouldn’t do what he said he was going to do.

“We didn’t ask ‘are you sure, Kriss?’ We just decided ‘right, where is everyone else going’. The question wasn’t ‘can Kriss do it?’ but ‘how can we get him into that position?’”

As the teams prepared to step on to the track there was an uncanny, almost preternatural, confidence among the GB men. “There was a really eerie feeling in the tunnel before we stepped out on the track,” Redmond recalls. “We were a team but getting our heads together in our own way and I remember looking up and catching Roger’s eye and we almost gave each other a bit of a wink because we knew we had this ‘thing’ that nobody else had. Then I caught John’s eye and we exchanged the same look.

“It was like the cyclist Chris Boardman in 1992, who had a special new bike that he knew would win the Olympic pursuit title. We knew we had the equivalent of that. A new design that no one had tried and tested before that we knew would work.”

Leg one

Black was drawn in lane three with American Andrew Valmon in lane five but on the opening stage there was, of course, a ‘long stagger’ which did not conclude until 100m into the second leg. The 25-year-old was midway through a career that would culminate with an Olympic silver medal behind Michael Johnson at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and he set off in a hard, controlled fashion in an attempt to build a lead.

Finishing the first leg after a 44.7 split, Black handed over to Redmond with a slim yet significant advantage as Valmon, who had finished fifth in the individual 400m and who clocked 44.9 on his relay lap, passed the stick to Quincy Watts.

Leg two

Watts was only 20 at the time but destined to win the Olympic 400m gold 12 months later in Barcelona. Redmond, who was not in the best shape of his life due to injury, was determined not to waste Black’s lead and went off with purpose – faster than he would ordinarily – but Watts closed down the back straight and, en route to a scintillating 43.4 split, began to drive past the Briton into the home straight.

“I believe if you could pin-point one moment in the race where it is won and lost, for me it happened in the space of 10 seconds,” says Black. “Derek ran the fastest split out of us all that day (44.0) but if you watch the race as someone who doesn’t know anything about athletics, you would think he got spanked by Quincy Watts, but Derek’s instructions were very clear. There was no point me creating a lead and Derek taking it easy. Derek had to commit and go to a place that maybe he had never been to before because we if we were going to go to the front, we had to go from the front with no messing around.

“I think the moment the race was won and lost was when Quincy Watts decided to go past Derek. If Quincy had just sat behind and handed to Danny Everett, who could have tucked behind John, to then hand to Pettigrew to tuck behind Kriss, I’m not sure we’d be sitting here talking about this today.”

Redmond says: “I 100% agree Quincy Watts made a tactical error. I think he panicked because he wanted to put America back where they normally are – in the lead. Their strategy was simply to get in front and run as fast as they can.

“I had to make sure I got a good changeover as I didn’t want to waste any of Roger’s energy. Then I had no choice other than to go out hard. I wasn’t going to waste Roger’s effort. I then had to worry about the last 50-60m when I got there.

“Quincy came past me because I was gassed as I’d committed to the first 300-odd metres. I just remember thinking ‘you’re not going to pull away from me. Hang on and give John a fighting chance’. Kriss wanted the baton either in the lead or no more than three metres down, so I remember thinking ‘don’t give that baton to John any more than three metres down’.”

Leg three

Regis took the baton a stride or so behind Everett but as a 200m specialist with little 400m experience, the selection of the 24-year-old Briton was a gamble. After winning the European 200m title the previous year, there was little doubt he would be able to stick with Everett through the early stages but would he fade in the latter stages?

The opposite was true. Regis felt so good he wanted to try to over-take Everett, despite the American having won bronze in the individual 400m at the championships, but the Briton resisted the temptation.

“At one point in the back straight I thought Everett was jogging and I thought I could pull out, accelerate and go past him,” Regis remembers.

“Then I thought ‘don’t be silly, pull back in’. I would have got to 350m but in the last 50m my legs would probably have fallen off, so I stuck to what I knew and just followed him.

“I remember saying at the time that if he ran into the stadium and then up the stairs, I would have followed him! I felt really calm and in control of what I was doing. I saw Roger and Derek do their thing and they did exactly what they said they were going to do. I was the third piece of the jigsaw puzzle and I just had to put my piece where it should go and then leave it up to Kriss.”

Psychologically, Regis was inspired by his team-mates and did not want to let them down. In turn, they trusted him despite his inexperience. The Londoner had been part of sprint relay teams at various championships, such as Tokyo where he won bronze with Linford Christie, Tony Jarrett and Darren Braithwaite, but there was always an air of tension in the sprint relay squads due to individual rivalries. In contrast, a different atmosphere existed in the 4x400m and Regis was embraced as part of the team.

“In the 4x400m everybody trusted each other,” he says. “We all knew what we were capable of and I was told to simply get the baton and make sure I was right up the backside of Danny Everett so that Kriss would have a chance.”

Akabusi takes up the story. “For me, the most significant leg was John’s. I always think 200m runners are quick, strong but not very bright!” he laughs. “But John contradicted all that as he came off the turn, tucked in and implemented the strategy despite all the endorphins, adrenaline, eyeballs being out and the crowd baying. To have that presence of mind and to remember his role in the team and to execute it was what won it.”

In contrast to this year’s Olympics in Tokyo, the stadium in the Japanese capital was packed. But Regis says he recalls almost near silence as he focused on Everett’s back.

“When you’re in the zone you can hear a pin drop,” he says. “And when I was running it was completely quiet. I could hear myself breathing and I could hear his footsteps but as soon as I handed the baton over I could hear the crowd again.”

Regis’ split for his lap was 44.2, with Everett running 44.3 as he maintained the slim US lead.

Regis hands to Akabusi (Mark Shearman)

Leg four

As Akabusi prepared to take the baton right behind US anchorman Pettigrew, he could sense history was being created. “I was oblivious to any intricacies or anything going wrong,” he recalls. “All I saw was poetry in motion and it was just an amazing experience to be in the zeitgeist or spirit of that time.

“I had the privilege of being the last guy and seeing Roger in his blocks with Derek at the side and seeing John in his own little world.”

There was much work still to do, though. Pettigrew, 23, had won the 400m title at the championships in 44.57 whereas Akabusi’s best in the flat 400m was a 44.93 from three years earlier. At 32 he was the veteran of the GB team and had won bronze at these championships in the 400m hurdles – an event he only switched to because he felt he was too slow to be competitive in the flat event.

“I can’t believe how calm and confident I was,” he says, “and the only time I had doubts was about 30m from the line when I went from ‘look how good we are’ to ‘oh my God, it’s down to you’.”

Underestimating his rival, Pettigrew did not go off hard. Instead he cruised along, giving Akabusi a relatively easy ride, before banking on kicking away from the Briton in the home straight.

It was a serious miscalculation. Rather than turning the final lap into a pure test of 400m speed, Pettigrew effectively drew Akabusi into a street fight and it gave the wily ex-soldier a “puncher’s chance” to win.

Coming off the final turn like a middle-distance runner ready to kick, Akabusi steeled himself for the final drive to the line. Pettigrew was seemingly floating to victory with his head gently rolling from side to side as his stride ate up the Tokyo track but, drawing on all his years of experience and with every sinew straining, Akabusi began to draw past him in the final metres. He timed it perfectly, too, with a split of 44.59 to Pettigrew’s 44.93.

“Kriss got a disproportionate amount of coverage as he ran the final leg coming through the finish with the baton in his hand,” says Black with a smile. “But watch what happens when Kriss goes past Pettigrew.

“Pettigrew comes back at Kriss and that should never happen in a 400m race. It was partly because Pettigrew hadn’t gone out hard. But Kriss also used 15 years of relays experience.

“No one had run as many relays over the years than Kriss and I believe if he had gone two metres earlier or two metres later we would not have won the gold medal. It is that fine.

“If he had gone earlier, Pettigrew would have come back and caught him. If that race was 401 metres we were coming second. It was amazing to know exactly when to go. You can never assume anyone else would have or could have done that.”

The winning time of 2:57.43 was a British, European and Commonwealth record. In second, the Americans clocked 2:57.57 with Jamaica a distant third in 3:00.10.

How did they do it?

Black explains: “This didn’t just ‘happen’. What happened in Tokyo 1991 was a culmination of years and years of a culture that had been created before us by guys like Phil Brown, Todd Bennett and Garry Cook in 1984.

“Things changed then (in ’84 winning Olympic silver in LA behind the United States) as they were running as friends and a tradition was formed where we would meet up socially away from our training groups. It wasn’t particularly encouraged by our coaches but we learned the relay was bigger than the individual and this manifested itself in 1991.

“John didn’t have this same culture in the 4x100m squad but then came into a 4x400m team that welcomed him and believed in him. It sounds a bit airy-fairy but these are the things that make a difference when you run on the track. We didn’t run as four guys without a connection. We ran as four guys who knew each other and respected each other and who were friends and this came across as we crossed the line.

“That why it still lives,” Black says on the rich memories of the race. “I don’t think it lives just because we won. It lives because people felt a connection between the four of us that you don’t often see in a relay team.

“Now, we sit here 30 years later and my three team-mates were playing golf in Scotland a few days ago and I would have liked to have joined them but I was playing with them only a month ago. That isn’t normal either and it’s the legacy of ’91.”

In 1986 Black, Redmond and Akabusi had teamed up with Brian Whittle to win the European 4x400m title in Stuttgart. After that victory the runners created a unique and unofficial society called the ‘Sub-3 Club’. Men who had broken the three-minute barrier in a relay met up regularly socially, often in Birmingham, with members of the club wearing a ring with ‘sub-3’ engraved on it.

Redmond says: “To me it was like a badge of honour and almost as important as winning a medal. We were proud of these rings and it was the start of the bond that we had.”

This camaraderie created helped the athletes forge a deep connection which contributed to their success. This continued into the next generation too with Black combining with Iwan Thomas, Mark Richardson and Jamie Baulch to run the still-standing UK record of 2:56.60 as they took silver behind the United States at the 1996 Olympics.

On the Tokyo triumph, Black adds: “We weren’t four young kids who had just started out in our career either. We were experienced athletes who had had successes and failures. It also magnified the attention and publicity we had at the time and ever since because people knew us already when we competed in that race.

“So they were connected to us as an audience and when you put all these little things together into a pot it explains why we’re sitting here talking about it 30 years later.”

Regis agrees: “It was such a refreshing atmosphere to be involved in. We were all individuals but also friends coming together to do battle against everyone else. Due to this close-knit friendship when the starter fired the gun this gave us even more impetus for us to raise our game and to achieve what we achieved.

“For me it will always remain the best performance I ever had in track and field and the most fun I ever had in the sport because it all came together.”

Whereas the British plan went perfectly, the quartet appreciate the result may have been different if Watts had not been so impetuous on the second leg, or if Pettigrew had gone out harder on the anchor. Or, if Michael Johnson had run.

Johnson won the 200m at the 1991 World Championships but Black reveals: “The Americans could have run Michael. He wanted to run and they said to him ‘we don’t need you!’”

Collective retribution

The four men have discussed and analysed the race many times over the past 30 years but one area emerges which Akabusi describes as new territory. It is the promise of redemption that all the team felt going into the relay.

Redmond and Regis had gone out at the semi-final stage in their respective individual events. Akabusi wound up third behind Winthrop Graham of Jamaica and winner Samuel Matete of Zambia in the 400m hurdles, whereas Black believes he “lost gold” in the 400m.

Akabusi explains the importance of this. “For me what contributed to my relay performance was my own bad performance in the 400m hurdles. The relay gives you a second bite at the cherry. I really thought I had a chance of becoming world champion or at least winning silver as a 400m hurdler but I tried get Winthrop Graham, lost my rhythm, hit a hurdle and I was lucky to hold on to third. That meant that this relay was my chance with these fellas to get that big G.

“I think I transposed my disappointment in the 400m hurdles into that relay and, forgive me for saying this because it’s stupidity, but I didn’t care if Michael Johnson had been on that last leg. There was just something in the atmosphere that made me know ‘I’ve got this’.

“It was redemption. It didn’t really enter my mind that the fairy story wasn’t going to have a wonderful ending apart from that last 20m. If I’d won the individual 400m hurdles, I may not have even suggested to everybody that I could run the last leg!”

Redmond says: “I can concur as I’d had a bad individual so my journey to that final was that I got knocked out in the semi-final of the 400m. I was fighting to get back into shape and hadn’t had many races that season.

“I was even talking to my coach and Frank Dick about maybe pulling out of the relay. But Frank told me not to be so hasty and to at least run in the heats. So for me there was a bit of redemption to have.”

Regis agrees: “I got knocked out in the semi-final and felt like a failure. We won bronze in the sprint relay and I didn’t feel I’d be selected for the 4x400m. I mentioned this to Kriss and he told me to ‘shut up’ and that I’d do it!

“I went from Nowheresville to standing on top of the mountain,” adds Regis. “I felt ‘whatever these guys say, I am going to do’. I wanted to give them whatever they wanted because I felt the euphoria of belief from three guys.”

Usually so ebullient, Akabusi softens his voice and reflects quietly: “It was the power of this synergy and that we all believed in each other. I didn’t realise there was such a collective redemption. We’ve never been here before.”

John Regis, Kriss Akabusi, Roger Black and Derek Redmond celebrate (Mark Shearman)

Aftermath and legacy

The Americans were left shell-shocked by a rare defeat in an event they regarded as their own.

“There were the two sets of fans that night,” says Redmond. “There were the American fans who wanted to see the Americans win and there was the rest of the world who wanted to see the Americans lose. So every fan in that stadium who was not American may as well have been British.”

He adds: “I remember Kriss giving them a bit of a ribbing behind the rostrum and I thought ‘leave it, leave it’ because I thought it was going to kick off.”

Tragically, 19 years later, Pettigrew was found dead in his car after committing suicide with a drugs overdose. He was only 42.

“We haven’t really ever spoken to them since the race in depth and Pettigrew, God rest his soul, isn’t around to defend himself,” says Black. “I got on pretty well with Valmon and Pettigrew on the circuit and I sensed from them all that if they were going to get beaten then – and this might sound daft – they would rather it was by us.

“They knew us and liked us. There was no animosity at all and didn’t feel anything bad from them.”

Akabusi disagrees. “I did. Pettigrew was great – he was just shaking his head and couldn’t comprehend it. But Andrew Valmon… his face! If he could have ripped my guts out, he would. He did not look happy.”

Regis adds: “Pettigrew got absolutely blasted by the press. They said the world champion got beaten by a carthorse.

“He showed disrespect to Kriss by jogging and then thinking he could out-kick him. That shows they didn’t have a plan. The way to beat Kriss is to take it out (fast) but Pettigrew thought he was world champion and could show up in the home straight.”

On the legacy of that day, Black says: “Two things happened after that race. One is that you choose the running order depending on what’s in front of you and not because it’s always been done that way. It seems so obvious now and it’s so logical what we did. It’s not like Dick Fosbury in the high jump, for example, jumping over a bar backwards.

“The second thing is that the Americans didn’t just stick with the first four in the trials. Now you see hurdlers in the team and all sorts.”

Subsequent British 400m runners drew on the power of that period and went on to run even quicker. Thomas, for example, set a still-standing UK record of 44.36 in 1997. It is probably no coincidence he was coached by the same man who guided Black and Akabusi – the Southampton-based Mike Smith.

In recent years, though, British 400m running – in the men’s events at any rate – has struggled and in 2021 it reached an all-time low when, at the time of writing, the UK’s fastest mark this year is 45.51 and the national title was won in a mere 46.05, while the 4x400m team finished sixth in their heat at the Tokyo Olympics in 3:03.29.

“The biggest disappointment for me at the Olympics was British quarter-miling,” says Akabusi, who winces at “the idea that we couldn’t rustle up one guy to compete there”.

For Akabusi, the solution is simple. “You’ve got to run fast – and I’m deadly serious – and you’ve got to compete against the best in the country.”

He elaborates: “When I went to Mike Smith as a coach in Southampton I told him I wanted to run fast and he said ‘if you want to run fast, you’ve got to run fast’.

“Initially I didn’t understand it but once I trained with his group I did. We… ran… fast! Whether it was 150s, 250s, 300s, 500s, we ran fast. Up the clock, down the clock, we ran fast. Uphills, downhills, we ran fast. I don’t know what quarter milers are doing now but the results tell me they aren’t running fast.”

Regis agrees: “Speed kills. If you have speed then you can change your mindset and do anything. If you don’t have speed these days you have no chance.”

Redmond questions the commitment of current athletes. “When we turned up to the session we knew we were going to be hurting and heaving,” he says. “Now the athletes are bartering with their coaches on what to do. I don’t see that hunger or discipline or pure commitment to put your balls on the line.”

Black elaborates: “The formula for success in our sport has never changed. You’ve got to have talent. You have to be prepared to work hard and in the 400m you’ve got to be prepared to hurt. Then you’ve also got to be lucky for geography to play its part. I was lucky enough to live near Todd Bennett and Kriss Akabusi. You have to train with fast people. Derek ran with Phil Brown and others and John had a good group around him.

“I don’t think the guys who are running now are rubbish. I just think they don’t know how good they can be. I genuinely don’t know the geography and current make up, but they have to go back to creating pockets of groups. I would not have been the athlete I was without Kriss and vice versa.”

Black continues: “We saw in the women’s 400m in Tokyo this summer how it was done. Jodie Williams decided she wasn’t going to be a 100/200m runner anymore but would give the 400m a go and she made the Olympic final.

“If you want to now find the next great British 400m runner, he will be between the ages of 18 and 21 and he thinks he’s a 100m runner.”

Akabusi does not mince his words, as he interrupts to say: “To British quarter milers, if you are still gauging yourself off the British record and on dipping under 45 seconds and if you’re happy running 45.5 or 45.6 in June, you’re in the wrong century, son.”

The final word goes to Black. “Success leaves clues. We’re four old knackered blokes who did it years ago and we don’t know it all, by far. But we know a bit of something.

“What I find odd is that Kriss and I have been approached by one young athlete in the last few years because one of the guys we used to train with is trying to help him. No one else has asked us.

“The coaches aren’t interested in asking any of us anything. You can’t say we’re not approachable and I don’t know an ex-athlete who doesn’t like to talk about their career and pass on a bit of advice.”

As I found in my sprint down memory lane, these legends of the British 400m scene are only a Zoom call away as well.

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