Kirani James and LaShawn Merritt have dominated the men’s 400m so comprehensively this season that it is difficult to see anything other than injury preventing them going one-two in Moscow. Only the relative order is to be determined.
What a contrast between these protagonists.
James is creating history for his Caribbean island nation of Grenada. He was his country’s first-ever IAAF World Youth Championships medallist, first World youth champion, first IAAF World Junior Championships medallist, first World junior champion, first IAAF World Championships medallist and champion and, finally, first Olympic Games medallist and champion.
Merritt, on the other hand, is heir to a great tradition which dates all the way back to Thomas Burke, winner of the 400m at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896.
Numerically, USA dominates the event, winning the overwhelming share of individual and Relay medals at the Olympic Games and, since their inauguration in 1983, the IAAF World Championships.
Indeed, when James ran 43.94 in winning the gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games last year, he became the 10th man to break 44 seconds, but the other nine are US athletes, led by World record-holder Michael Johnson with 43.18.
Merritt is the only man to beat James this year. He did that with a 44.32 outing at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene, a race in which James left himself with too much to do in the final straight after a seemingly lethargic first half of the race. He flew home, but fell 0.07 short.
James avenged that defeat in Paris the following month, running sub-44 for the second time in his career with a time of 43.96 to finish a metre clear of Merritt, who ran a season’s best 44.09. He rounded things off with another win in London, this time in 44.65 ahead of the USA’s Tony McQuay, a race Merritt did not compete in.
One thing appears relatively clear: to match James, Merritt will most likely have to go under 44 seconds, a feat he last achieved in 2008 in winning the Beijing Olympic title in 43.75. James has run sub-44 both this year and last year and is clearly capable of doing so again in Moscow.
Few others have shown the sort of consistent form to challenge the top two.
Saudi Arabia’s Yousef Ahmed Masrahi won the Asian title this year and won in Oslo, but was second to Merritt in Rome and well beaten by James in London.
Belgium’s Borlee twins – 2011 World Championships bronze medallist Kevin and Jonathan – were both finalists in London last year but have not yet shown quite the same form this year.
Back in the Olympic stadium for the London Diamond League, Jonathan finished third behind James and McQuay while Kevin was a distant seventh, although at the Belgian championships in July, Jonathan won the 200m in a near-personal best 20.38 and Kevin ran the fastest 400m by a European this year with 44.73.
Dominican Republic’s Luguelin Santos made huge breakthroughs last year, winning the World junior title before taking the silver medal in London. He ran 44.74 in June, but his form appears to have dropped off since.
Also under 45 seconds this year have been the consistent Bahamian Ramon Miller and Trinidad & Tobago’s Deon Lendore. An appearance by either, or both, in the final is a strong possibility, but it is difficult to see either challenging for a medal.
Providing he remains physically healthy, then, it appears Kirani James may be heading for another first – the first Grenadian to retain a World Championships title.
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Len Johnson for the IAAF