Merritt takes Berlin 400

Sunday, 01 June 2008

Berlin, Germany - LaShawn Merritt, who sacrificed his promise as a musician to concentrate on athletics, hit top note on the track today as he inflicted a rare defeat on the Olympic and World 400m champion, Jeremy Wariner. But Merritt said it was a result that would soon be forgotten – at least by him.

Competing in the DKB-ISTAF Berlin meeting, the first of this season’s six ÅF Golden League fixtures, Merritt held off Wariner in the tightest of finishes between the two United States athletes. Merritt recorded a world leading 44.03 while Wariner needed just four-hundredths longer.

Wariner, 24, has won all the big 400m titles of recent years, backing up his 2004 Olympic victory with World Championships gold in 2005 and 2007. So Merritt is not using his victory today as a sign that the outcome necessarily will be different at the Beijing Olympics in August.

“I won this one but the big show is in a couple of months,” said Merritt, who is three years Wariner’s junior. It was, Merritt said, his first career victory over Wariner and it was only the fifth defeat suffered by the Olympic champion in 43 races at 400m.

But, if we are not going to forget it in a hurry, Merritt is. “It’s another race,” Merritt said. “It’s a Golden League meet - great crowd, great stadium - but it’s not the last race we are going to compete in. So I have just got to take it all in now and, by the next race, this race won’t be in my head.”

Predicted defeat

While Merritt’s triumph ranks as an upset, it was hardly a surprise to meeting director Gerhard Janetsky, who, speaking of Wariner, told the IAAF website yesterday: “If I was a betting man, I have the feeling that he might even be defeated. LaShawn Merritt is really going for it and Angelo Taylor is capable of doing it as well."

Furthermore, it had seemed curious, perhaps a sign of self-doubt in Wariner, that he did not share the platform with Merritt and Taylor at a press conference two days ago. Merritt and Taylor were interviewed separately by the media, while Wariner sat outside the room, taking the stage upon the departure of his rivals.

Merritt and Taylor – who was fourth today while Chris Brown, of The Bahamas placed third - were the silver and bronze medallists behind Wariner’s successful World title defence in Osaka last summer. Wariner, who has switched coaches from long-time mentor Clyde Hart to Michael Ford, declined approaches from the media today to explain his defeat but Merritt said there was no bad feeling.

Asked whether Wariner had said anything to him after the race, Merritt replied that he had congratulated him. “He is a phenomenal athlete,” Merritt added. “He is not a poor sportsman. When he wins I congratulate him and, the first time I won, he just congratulated me.”

In a live chat with the IAAF website yesterday, Wariner had been asked who represented the biggest threat to him. He replied: “I’m the biggest threat to myself because, if I don’t run my race, I will end up losing. But, as long as I stay focused and run my own race, I should come out on top.”

Wariner also said that the hamstring that he had strained in Doha, at the Qatar Athletic Super Grand Prix on May 9, was now “fine” and there was no obvious sign of it troubling him today.

Perfect partnership

Had it not been for athletics, Merritt might have developed his musical talents. “I used to play brass instruments – the trumpet, baritone, tuba – until I was about 17,” Merritt recalled. “But I stopped when I went to college and started running track.” At the Woodrow Wilson High School, Portsmouth, Virginia, he was more than just a regular member of the marching and concert bands. “I used to write music that the band could play at football games, stuff like that,” Merritt said.

Coached by Dwayne Miller in Norfolk, Virginia, where he is studying sports management at Old Dominion University, Merritt believes he has found the perfect partnership: “He is a great coach,” he said of Miller. “He coached me when I was in high school. He is a good guy, knows the sport and studies the sport. He teaches, I listen. We make a great combination.”

One ÅF Golden League victory down, five to go for a share in the $1m Jackpot. Except that Merritt, at least before today’s run, did not intend to be in Oslo next Friday for the Bislett Games and the second stop on the ÅF Golden League circuit. He is committed, instead, to the Prefontaine Classic, in Eugene, Oregon, which takes place two days later.

Looking ahead to the rest of the season, Merritt added: “I am competing well and trying to stay healthy and focus. I expect great things moving forward. The pressure (raised by beating Wariner) doesn’t matter. I am a competitor. If I win, I win. If I don’t, I move onto the next race.

“But nobody wants to be No2. When you are No2, you train that much harder because you are one spot away from being No1. After I was second at the World Championships I said I wanted to be No1 and this year I am dedicating myself to being that.”

David Powell for the IAAF