DAEGU, South Korea — A memorable meeting — marked by a late surge and a stumble — could be the start of a robust rivalry between Grenada’s Kirani James and American LaShawn Merritt.
James leaned across the line Tuesday to win the gold medal in the 400 meters at the world championships, upstaging the reigning titleholder, who had grab the back of the teenager’s jersey to prevent himself from falling.
The surprise finish put Merritt on notice: There’s a new kid in the blocks, and he’s pretty good. He’s even drawing comparisons to Jamaican sensation Usain Bolt.
“I don’t want to be the next Usain Bolt,” said James, who turns 19 on Thursday. “I’m happy in my own skin. I’m on the right track to great things.”
Merritt was a little rusty. This was his first major meet since serving a 21-month suspension for using a banned substance that his lawyer said was the result of a male-enhancement product. He lost steam with about 10 meters to go, opening the door for James.
“He is a great competitor,” Merritt said as the Americans failed to win gold in the 400 for the first time since 2001. “I didn’t quite have a good day.”
Their next major meeting could come at the London Olympics. Provided, of course, Merritt is allowed to compete.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport will deliver a verdict on the IOC’s “six-month rule,” which took effect in 2008 and prevents athletes who receive doping bans of more than six months from competing at the next Summer or Winter Games. A decision is expected in late September.
“I’m really not thinking about that,” Merritt said. “I’ll deal with that when it comes.”
For a change, there were no full-blown disputes or jumped guns by world-record holders at the worlds.
The only real surprise of the night came when pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia failed to win a medal in her third straight global championship. That’s after a run of seven titles in a row spanning the Olympics along with world outdoor and indoor competitions.
“I lost again. But it’s OK and I’m optimistic for next year,” Isinbayeva said. “The Olympic year is more important. I was just unlucky.”
That allowed Fabiana Murer to win the gold.
Other winners included Robert Harting of Germany (discus), Yuliya Zaripova of Russia (steeplechase), Tatyana Chernova of Russia (heptathlon) and David Rudisha of Kenya (800).
“I’m in good shape,” Rudisha said after his dominating performance. “I felt very strong.”
The same can be said of James, who ran a personal-best 44.60 seconds to edge Merritt by 0.03 and win Grenada’s first medal at the worlds.
James said he’s certain his hometown of Gouyave, a small fishing community, will be celebrating.
“Everyone is happy,” James said. “It is Carnival back home now.”
It’s not as if James is an overnight success. He won the world junior title last year and an NCAA crown last June when he ran for the University of Alabama.
His tall frame and ability to dominate have led to comparisons with another sprinter.
“Every step of the way, he has been doing similar things as to what Bolt did,” said Albert Joseph, the team leader for Grenada and the one-time coach of James. “I wouldn’t say he’s the next Bolt. But he has made a name for himself.”
Indeed, and James definitely has Merritt’s attention.
“He’s winning right now,” Merritt said. “But I’m feeling good.”
These days, Merritt is hardly race sharp, not after spending so much time out of competitions. But he’s steadily climbing back into the form that led to an Olympic gold in Beijing and another a year later at the worlds in Berlin.
Maybe that’s because he didn’t spend the down time going through the motions in workouts, killing time as he counted down the days until his return. Instead, he brought in his own competition, a slew of recently graduated college sprinters to make sure he stayed on task.
Well, as much as they could anyway. Chasing Merritt is no easy assignment.
He also pulled out old race film of himself as a reminder of the technique he used overtake everyone, including chief rival Jeremy Wariner, who is sidelined with a torn ligament in his left foot and wasn’t competing at the world championships.
It was lonely, Merritt said. Bringing in sprinters simply wasn’t the same.
Merritt was able to return to racing in late July and promptly finished second at a meet in Stockholm. But he understands there’s a cloud over him because of the doping suspension.
“I know that I am clean,” Merritt said. “I can’t really worry about what everybody else is thinking. I’ve been training hard. All I can do is leave it on the track.”
Now another adversary has hit the track, and James seems to be getting only better with every race.
“I am sure we’ll meet again,” Merritt said.