Picture credit: Billy Stickland/Getty Images

The gang of four

Remembering a classic British race

This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Kriss Akabusi is 65 this November. How can someone with such seemingly inexhaustible energy be eligible for a metaphorical bus pass? Time clearly waits for no man, even one who once scorched round tracks the way Akabusi did: and never to more devastating effect than at the 1991 world championships in Tokyo.

The Americans were favourites for the 4x400m relay: they always were. Akabusi and his British teammates Roger Black, Derek Redmond and John Regis had other ideas. But they needed to be smart. Conventional wisdom had it that Black as the fastest runner should go last, the second fastest (Redmond) should go first, and Akabusi and Regis should take the middle legs. But conventional wisdom would have had them running for silver: by the time Black got the baton on the anchor leg, the USA would have been out of sight. 

So they decided to mash things up. Black would go first and give them a lead. Redmond and Regis would put themselves in amongst the Americans: worry them, make them think about something other than the usual smooth glide to victory. And then Akabusi, in the shape of his life at 32, would have his shot at glory. 

Sometimes you have to take a chance to stand a chance. Not every team would have dared, but they were all good friends and they believed in each other completely: a true collective, way greater than the sum of their parts.

The stadium is buzzing when they come out for the race: a capacity crowd, the humid blanket of night settling over the city, and a magnificent championships reaching its climax. The men look at each other and something passes between them: a strange, magical sense that this is on.

Black is quickly into his stride, running hard but controlled. In the home straight, the final 100 where it really starts to hurt, his fluidity starts to go, his strides jerking as the lactic comes like a tsunami: but he’s still marginally ahead of Andrew Valmon when he hands over to Redmond. Black was tasked with giving Britain a lead, and he’s given them that lead. Job one of four, done.

Redmond runs hard round the first turn and breaks for the inside at the start of the back straight. Quincy Watts comes up alongside and goes past him. Akabusi, waiting on the infield, isn’t worried. Let the Americans make all the running: that just leaves them there to be shot at. Better to hunt than be hunted. So long as Redmond can hang on, the British will be right where they want to be. He does, and they are. Job two of four, done.

Regis is a stride down on Danny Everett as they set off for the third leg, and his task is simple: stick to Everett’s back. Wherever Everett goes, so too will Regis follow. Johnny Two-Chests, Akabusi calls him, for the cannonballs of muscle that form his upper body, and he uses that now to intimidate, right behind Everett’s backside all the way round the bend and into the home straight. Job three of four, done.

Now it’s the last-lap shootout the British wanted: Akabusi against Antonio Pettigrew, the individual world champion. The rest of the field is 30 metres behind as they hare down the back straight. Akabusi’s running long and standing tall. “I’m thinking: Pettigrew, you’re jogging. You are jogging.” Pettigrew, trying to be tactical rather than using his pure speed to blast away. Pettigrew, bringing a knife to an Akabusi gunfight. 

Off the final bend Pettigrew suddenly turns up the gas: knees high, arms pumping. Akabusi’s having none of it. He’s been saving himself too. He holds Pettigrew, and then he comes wide to attack him. This is where all his strength and experience come in. Go too soon and Pettigrew will come back at him: go too late and he’ll run out of track. 

Akabusi judges it like a boss, practically out in lane three as he strains every sinew, an entire career coming down to this small sliver of time. He hears the air whistling through the hollow ends of Pettigrew’s baton and knows the American is coming back at him: but from somewhere cased deep within himself he finds yet more, and as they flash across the line he has four-hundredths of a second. It is, by chance, the perfect margin: 0.01 for each man who ran.

More than three decades on, those men still meet up every year to play golf and reminisce, and they still have audiences riveted when the topic of the race comes up. You can find them talking about it on YouTube, and they’re hilarious: not second-rate quiz-show forced banter amusing, but genuinely very, very funny, the kind of humour which comes from a deep love for each other and an equally deep appreciation of what they achieved. 

“We didn’t run as four guys without a connection,” Black says. “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’s why it still lives. I don’t think it lives just because we won. It lives because people felt a connection between the four of us.”

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