Michael Johnson's 400 world record falls as LaShawn Merritt takes bronze medal

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RIO DE JANEIRO — LaShawn Merritt missed his shot at the Olympic gold medal he’d waited eight years to recapture. Now he’s got one more shot at individual gold – and to get it, he needs to beat the fastest man in the world.

The 30-year-old Merritt did walk away from the 400-meter dash with a bronze medal Sunday night, finishing 0.82 seconds behind gold medalist Wayde van Niekerk – who broke Michael Johnson’s world record of 43.18 set on Aug. 26, 1999 – and failing to take back the 400 title he won at the Beijing Games. Merritt’s 43.85 was a season best, but nowhere near van Niekerk’s 43.03.

“It was a crazy race, a great moment in history,” Merritt said. “The world record was broken and the best man won. We went at it. I could have run better but it was fantastic to be part of that race.”

Wayde van Niekerk South Africa poses next to information board showing his world record in the 400M. (REUTERS)
Wayde van Niekerk South Africa poses next to information board showing his world record. (REUTERS)

Van Niekerk was not surprised by his historic time.

“I believed I could get the world record,” van Niekerk said. “I’ve dreamed of this medal since forever. I am blessed.”

A hamstring injury wiped away Merritt’s shot at a repeat in 2012 at London, where he was trying to return from a 21-month suspension for taking the erectile-dysfunction supplement ExtenZe, which contained a banned substance. His medal at Olympic Stadium came in what amounted to be a three-man race, with van Niekerk and silver medalist Kirani James of Grenada.

“I knew the time was going to be fast but I didn’t know it was going to be 43.0 fast,” Merritt said. “He ran his heart out.”

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The field in Thursday’s 200-meter dash is even more daunting. The 200, which Merritt wasn’t even certain he was going to run at the Olympics until he turned in a world-best 19.74-second time at the U.S. track trials in July, is loaded, with van Niekerk, along with American sprinters Justin Gatlin and Ameer Webb. Plus that Usain Bolt guy.

The 29-year-old Jamaican is the two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 200 and owns the world record at 19.19 seconds – more than half a second faster than Merritt’s personal best. American Michael Johnson remains the only track athlete to pull a 200-400 double in the Olympics.

Two days after the 200, on the final night of the Olympics, Merritt is expected to anchor the marquee event of the night: the 4×400-meter relay, in which the United States is the gold-medal favorite.