Great athlete McKenley remembered

Frank Litsky

Frank Litsky

Herb McKenley, the world's fastest 400-metre runner more than half a century ago and later the driving force in Jamaica's climb to track and field prominence, died on Monday.

McKenley, 85, died in Kingston, Jamaica.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, his wife, Beverley, said.

She said his health had been unsteady since he had a triple-bypass surgery in 1998.

In 1947, McKenley set a world record of 46,3 seconds for 440 yards.

In 1948, he set world records of 46,0 for 440 yards and 45,9 for the slightly shorter distance of 400 metres.

The same year, he went to the London Olympics as a member of the Jamaican team.

"Once I'm in the lead at the top of the home stretch, no man in the world can beat me," McKenley said in London before the 400 final.

But entering the final straightaway four yards in front, McKenley, at 6 foot 1 inch and 159 pounds and powered by an 8-foot stride, was overtaken by Arthur Wint, a Jamaican teammate and medical student who, at 6-4 1/2, had an even longer stride: 9 feet.

McKenley, finishing second, came away with the silver medal and a lasting memory of Wint's relentless footsteps gaining on him: "Boom, boom, boom," as he later put it.

After the race, Allison Danzig wrote in The New York Times, "The man who couldn't be beaten, the surest thing in track and field in the Games of the XIV Olympiad, met his master today in one of the greatest 400-metre races ever run."

McKenley's 1948 world record in the 400 has long been eclipsed - the current record, at 43,18, has been held by Michael Johnson of the US since 1999.

McKenley was born on July 10 1922 in Clarendon, Jamaica.

In addition to his wife of 40 years, McKenley is survived by four children from a previous marriage: eight grandchildren; and a brother, Dudley.

McKenley's racing philosophy was simple. "I run as fast as I can as long as I can," he once said.