He is one of the biggest names in world athletics at the moment and the reigning Olympic 400m champion. Grenadian sprinter Kirani James sat down with Shane Hannon at the recent One Young World summit in Dublin to talk about his influences, advice for aspiring athletes and the importance of sport.
At just 22 years of age, Kirani James has already achieved in athletics what most track and field prodigies can only dream of. Known as ‘The Jaguar’ for obvious reasons, James broke onto the world stage at senior level by winning gold in the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, becoming the youngest winner ever at eighteen. The following year he cemented his reputation as the best 400m athlete of his generation with gold in the London Olympics, while earlier this year he demolished the rest of the field to take home victory in a Games record time in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
James is an extremely humble and soft-spoken individual, and when asked about the importance of sport for young people he is steadfast in his response. “It gives you discipline and structure in life, as well as something to have motivation about. It also helps you to be competitive in a world where, if you’re not competitive, you’re not going to survive.”
August 6th, 2012 is a day that will go down in Grenadian history as its finest sporting hour, something James is all too aware of. “It was our country’s first Olympic medal, period, in any sport. So for everybody back home that was something to be proud about. We’re a small country, so the probability of having things to be proud about is a lot less than the bigger and more developed countries, because they have so many more people.” He’s not kidding – the population of Grenada is a mere 110,000, or roughly one-tenth the population of the urban Dublin area.
He still remembers the race itself very clearly. “It was a great experience. The whole London Olympics for me was a great experience. It was an honor for me just to be there and to compete for my country.” James was delighted to give his fellow Grenadians something to boast about. “I’m just glad that I could put them on the highest pedestal possible at the Olympic Games which is the gold medal podium. For me that was my main pride of the Games, to do that so they could be proud about it.”
James showed startling promise from a young age, and has the record for the fastest 400m times ever run by a 14-year-old and 15-year-old. In 2009 at the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) Games, he broke Usain Bolt’s 6-year-old Championship record, and is also one of only nine athletes in history (along with the likes of Bolt and Russian pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva) to win the World Championships at youth, junior and senior level of an athletic event. In terms of advice he would give to young people starting out in any sport, he urges them to “Always go out there and give it your best effort. As long as you do that, people who care about you are going to be proud of you regardless, so there’s not going to be any pressure whether you win or lose.”
James is adamant that young athletes need to surround themselves with uplifting, positive people, and that is certainly an element that has helped his career flourish at such a young age. “Surround yourself with people that are going places that you want to go, that have been places where you want to go, so that you can learn from them and they can mentor you. That helped me a lot and I’m very thankful for all the help that I’ve received. They put me in this position now where I can actually help other people.”
Trying to stay grounded is undoubtedly a tough task for any young person flung onto the world stage, in any discipline. In winning the Olympic gold medal in 43.94 seconds, James became the first non-American runner to ever break the 44-second mark and the first non-American 400m Olympic gold medalist since the Moscow Games in 1980. The reaction in his homeland was euphoric and he was welcomed back to the tiny Caribbean island’s airport on a government-chartered jet, with a red carpet at the ready. He was given half a million East Caribbean dollars (nearly 150,000 euros), made a Grenada tourism ambassador and had commemorative stamps inspired by his Olympic victory released. The refurbished Grenadian football and athletics stadium is also being named in his honor, with a museum and resource and fitness centre being constructed in his hometown of Gouyave.
In terms of his own inspirations, James’ answer is not all that obvious. “The people I looked up to the most had nothing to do with sport. People in my family, people in my church, mentors. Even my current coach now, a lot of the stuff we talk about has nothing to do with track, but life in general.” The closest thing to a sporting hero for James would have to be fellow Grenadian 400m athlete Alleyne Francique. “He ran at the 2004 Olympics and came 4th in the 400m and was one of the favourites to win. He actually got 4th out of lane eight and ran the fastest time out of lane eight at any Olympic Games. I thought ‘This guy’s from my country and he’s doing that so I can do that too.’”
James was a delegate at the recent One Young World summit in Dublin’s Convention Centre and it was his first visit to the Emerald Isle. “There’s so much going on here. You have young people taking global initiatives and trying to make the world a better place.” He himself is an undergraduate student at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, studying part-time for a Business degree. At least ten American colleges expressed an interest in taking James in on an athletic scholarship, but he chose Alabama and has no regrets, winning back-to-back NCAA Outdoor Championship titles in his first two years.
In terms of future plans for Rio in 2016 and beyond James is playing it cool, determined to stay competitive and consistent. “Every time I go out there I just try and do my best. As long as I do that I know the people at home and the people that care about me genuinely will be proud of that. For me that’s all that matters.”