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.”
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.”
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.