A fast learner in the 400
BEIJING -- LaShawn Merritt left nothing to chance. He broke down video of his 400-meter Olympic semifinal race and video of everyone who would be in the final Thursday night. He studied how Jamaica’s Usain Bolt had run the straightaway of his world-record performance in the 200. He made a game plan.
“I probably went over the race a million times in my head,” Merritt said.
One thing had struck the U.S. runner as he watched the video. He saw others had taken fewer steps in the semifinals even though, at 6 feet 3, he was taller. He noticed how Bolt had used his height, 6 feet 5, to full advantage by maximizing stride length.
“I learned something from Bolt’s race,” Merritt said. “He really opened up [his stride] coming down the homestretch.
“I used to run that way back in high school, before I started to get all technical. So I came here and said I’m just going to open up and let it fly, and that’s how it played out.”
At the top of the homestretch at the Bird’s Nest, Merritt flew past a tiring Jeremy Wariner and went on to thrash the man who had dominated the 400 the previous four years, with victories at the 2004 Olympics and the last two world meets.
“People said I was the underdog because of experience,” Merritt said. “But I believed I could do it, and that is the first step in winning.”
Running a personal best of 43.75 seconds, Merritt beat Wariner (44.74) by the largest margin between gold and silver in an Olympic 400 final.
Behind them, the race was much closer. David Neville (44.80) dived across the finish line to take the bronze from Christopher Brown of the Bahamas (44.84) and give the U.S. men their second straight sweep of the 400 -- and their fifth in Olympic history.
Allyson Felix’s silver medal in the 200 and the silver-bronze effort by the Davids, Payne and Oliver, in the 110-meter high hurdles helped Team USA forget the misfortunes of its sprint relay teams. The anchors of both relays, Tyson Gay and Lauryn Williams, dropped the batons on the exchanges.
The similarities between Merritt and Bolt, both 22, do not end with their size. Each had been a prodigy as a junior -- Bolt winning a world junior title at 15, Merritt running the third-fastest indoor 400 ever and winning a world junior title at 18. Each was a silver medalist at last year’s senior worlds.
“I have been looking for this moment for four years,” Merritt said.
Merritt began to envision it clearly after the June 1 race at Berlin in which he ended Wariner’s nine-race win streak.
The victory, Merritt said, was only a small part of what made that Berlin race important. His winning time, 44.03 to Wariner’s 44.07, was more significant.
“To run 44-flat early [in the season] made me know I was ready to run fast,” Merritt said.
When Merritt won their next matchup at the U.S. Olympic trials, it made people think Wariner had been foolish in his February decision to dump his longtime coach, Clyde Hart. Hart would not accept the contract Wariner offered, which the coach said cut his compensation by 50%.
Wariner, 24, would defeat Merritt twice in European races between the trials and the Olympics. But Merritt did not lose any of his confidence.
“I knew everyone would bring their ‘A’ game,” Merritt said. “I just had to bring my ‘A-plus’ game.”
Merritt did, lowering his personal best by .22 of a second. A disappointed and disappointing Wariner brought his “C” game, struggling badly through the final 100. Beginning with the 2004 Olympics, Wariner had run 32 faster 400s than this 44.74, with a personal best of 43.45.
“I ran the best I could,” Wariner said. “I had nothing left. I didn’t give up. LaShawn just ran a better race today.”
Felix, reigning world champion in the 200, felt the same way about her loss to defending Olympic champion Veronica Campbell-Brown, who completed a Jamaican gold-medal sweep of the men’s and women’s sprints.
“I’m disappointed, but I refuse to be ungrateful for something so few people have,” Felix said of her second straight Olympic 200 silver.
It turned out Felix would have needed to run .08 of a second faster than her personal best to beat Campbell-Brown’s winning time, 21.74. And this race was over a second after the gun, when Campbell-Brown flew from the blocks while Felix got her usual poor start and finished in 21.93, with Kerron Stewart of Jamaica third in 22.0.
“I didn’t race as much this season and probably could have been more race sharp,” Felix said. “But I felt confident going into the race. It just wasn’t there.”
The buzz wasn’t there in the hurdles final without China’s Liu Xiang, the defending world and Olympic champion who withdrew because of a foot injury after a false start in his first-round race. Cuba’s Dayron Robles, the world-record holder, won the final as easily as expected in 12.93 seconds.
Payne was second in 13.17 and Oliver third in 13.18.
“Our race would have been a little faster with” Liu, Payne said.
Payne was happy to prove he could be as fast on the track as he was in the air. He flew from the United States to Japan as an eleventh-hour replacement for an injured teammate at last year’s worlds, shrugged off jet lag and won a bronze medal.
“I wanted to show everyone I’m not just the guy who happened to be there,” Payne said.
Philip Hersh covers Olympic sports for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Sweeps of the 400 by U.S. men
1904 (12/3): Harry Hillman, 49.2; Frank Waller, 49.9; Herman Groman, 50.0
1968 (55/36): Lee Evans, 43.86; Larry James, 43.97; Ron Freeman, 44.41.
1988 (75/55): Steve Lewis, 43.87; Butch Reynolds, 43.93; Danny Everett, 44.09.
2004 (62/49): Jeremy Wariner, 44.0; Otis Harris, 44.16; Derrick Brew, 44.42.
2008 (55/40): LaShawn Merritt, 43.75; Jeremy Wariner, 44.74; David Neville, 44.8
( ) = Number of competitors / number of countries
Source: Philip Hersh