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London • Something remarkable occurred Monday night at Olympic Stadium that would have gone unnoticed in America except for the most discerning track and field fanatic.

For the first time in Olympic history no American competed in the men's 400 meters final.

U.S. runners had won the last seven Olympic titles and swept the podium three times in 2008, 2004 and 1988.

If someone wanted to mark the decline of the American empire they might look no further than at this singular event — a one lap race in which the 12 fastest 400 runners in history are from the United States. The country produced at least one Olympic medal winner in the event since 1920, except for the 1980 boycotted Moscow Games.

Until Grenadian teenager Kirani James won the gold medal in 43.94 seconds Monday, no non-American had ever broken 44 seconds.

Dominican Republic's Luguelin Santos won the silver medal and Lalonde Gordon of Trinidad and Tobago got the bronze the same night that Felix Sanchez won the 400-meters hurdles for the Dominican Republic.

Add the Jamaican dominance in the men's and women's 100- and 200-meter races, Caribbean runners are outclassing their giant northern neighbor in what can be viewed as an erosion of U.S. power.

Most fans know about 100 meters winner Usain Bolt. But here's how it happened in the 400 meters: defending champion LaShawn Merritt suffered a pre-existing hamstring injury just before his heat. Then youngsters Bryshon Nellum and Tony McQuay could only make the semifinals.

Now the United States' 28-year reign in the 4x400-meter relay — an event they have not lost since the 1976 Olympics — is in jeopardy.

"This is a big blow to the sport and it will only get worse unless there is a concerted effort to turn it around," said Bobby Poynter, a former San Jose State sprint star. "Yes we are spoiled and have probably seen the American dominance go down."

Ron Davis, San Jose State's new track and cross-country coach, couldn't believe what he was seeing.

"Our national federation will have to go to the drawing board after the Olympic Games on this one," said the former Spartan star in the 1960s.

The 400 meters holds a special place for San Jose sports historians. Lee Evans came out of Overfelt High to win the Olympic gold medal in 1968.

Twenty years later Silver Creek High alum Andre Phillips won the 400 hurdles at the Seoul Games.

Fred Harvey, another former Silver Creek High 400 runner, got nervous after watching Nellum and McQuay falter. The University of Arizona coach is in London with 400 hurdler Georgeanne Moline, who advanced to the final of her specialty Monday night.

He pulled Moline aside and said, "This is the Olympic Games. Every round is your final because if it is not your final it could be your last round."

Although he doesn't coach or know Mellum and McQuay, Harvey said, "From what I saw out there it looked like they were running the preliminary round of an NCAA championship."

The United States remains the destination for serious 400 runners. James won two NCAA titles for Alabama. Australian Steven Solomon will enter Stanford in a few weeks where he hopes to continue improving in running while studying pre-medicine. He finished last in the 400 but was ecstatic to reach the final when no American did.

"Stanford and the NCAA circuit is where I feel I need to be," Solomon said. "The competition I am going to be facing week in and week out is going to expose me to these kinds of races, really build up my experiences for major events like the Olympics."

Poynter, West Valley College's coach, says American universities are developing foreign athletes who "then return home with the skills to beat us.

"I believe that we do not provide room for younger 400 runners to develop and just rely on retreads. It takes hard work, discipline, and support from our educational system. Physical education and track has been cutback or eliminated in many schools."

Poynter and others say it is becoming increasingly difficult to develop new blood.

"If we do not increase and develop runners in our community I can only see the problem getting worse," he added.

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