Their last clash couldn’t have been closer, but in Lausanne there was clear daylight between Kirani James and LaShawn Merritt in the 400m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting on Thursday (3).
In Eugene at the end of May, the pair both broke the 44-second barrier with James awarded the victory in a photo finish as they both clocked 43.97. That race also saw James go one up on Merritt in their career-long head-to-head contest, 6-5.
In Lausanne, Merritt was looking to settle the score. Since his loss at the Prefontaine Classic, the world champion had recorded wins in Rome, New York and Ostrava, all with fast times. And it looked as though he had more in the tank.
Indeed he did; he dipped below 44 seconds and recorded a season’s best of 43.92, but even that wasn’t enough to stop the Olympic champion.
After coming off the final bend neck-and-neck with his US arch-rival, the 21-year-old stormed to an IAAF Diamond League record of 43.74.
It also took 0.2 off his own national record James set when winning the Olympic title two years ago, and set a world age-21 best.
The last time someone ran faster than that was back in 2007. Just to intensify the rivalry between James and Merritt, they now own identical personal bests.
“I wanted to come out and give my best this evening,” said James, a former world champion at the senior, junior and youth levels. “The conditions were perfect and the crowd was brilliant. I’m very happy with my run. A national record is always something to be proud of.
“It was overall a very good field. LaShawn was strong and he pushed me. I feel I’m in top shape and I’d like to carry this form to the Commonwealth Games.”
Although James and Merritt appear evenly matched on paper, their approach to this season has been quite different.
This was Merritt’s 12th race over one lap of the track already this year. In contrast, it was just James’ third. He has faced Merritt in all three of those races, losing the first but now winning the past two.
With their head-to-head record now in James’ favour at 7-5, the young Grenadian will turn his attention towards the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow later this month, where he will be among the most prohibitive favourites in the athletics events.
Behind the top two finishers, it was an outstanding race for most of the rest of the field as well
Saudi Arabia’s Youssef Ahmed Masrahi broke the Asian record with 44.43 in third place, while former world indoor champion Chris Brown improved his own world age-35 best in fourth when clocking 44.59, his fastest time for six years.
Aside from the season’s best, Merritt’s one other consolation is that he held on to pole position in the Diamond Race. With a total of 14 points, he has a clear lead over Masrahi (five points) and James (four).
However, with seven more IAAF Diamond League meetings to go, and another three scoring races in 400m, Merritt can’t be considered to have his hands on a Diamond Trophy just yet.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF