EUGENE, Ore. -- LaShawn Merritt and Kirani James bring out the best in one another.
Merritt, the reigning world champion in the men’s 400 meters, and James, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the same event, turned in matching times of 43.97 seconds Saturday — the fastest 400 marks in the world this year — during the 40th annual Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field.
James, from the island nation of Grenada, was declared the winner only after a photo review. The loss was the first of Merritt’s career at the Prefontaine Classic — he was 4-0 entering the meet — and dropped his head-to-head record against James to 4-6.
“We’re professionals who love to go at it,” said the 27-year-old Merritt, a three-time U.S. outdoor champion and the 2008 Olympic gold medalist, about his most recent battle with James. “You win some, you lose some, and some are photo finishes.”
James, 21, appeared to have the slightest of leads down the homestretch in Eugene, Oregon, the site of the third meet on the IAAF’s Diamond League schedule, eventually holding off Merritt with a perfectly-timed dip at the finish line.
“That last 80, 90 meters, you’ve always got to pay attention to where LaShawn is,” said James, who ran in lane No. 5, next to Merritt in lane No. 4. “He is a very strong finisher, very experienced in the 400, and he has his tactics down to a tee. He hardly ever makes a mistake, so you’ve got to watch where he is.”
Merritt nearly caught James as the two Olympic champions were shoulder-to-shoulder for the final 100 meters, bringing the near-capacity crowd of approximately 12,000 fans to its feet.
“He maybe had a step or half a step off the 300 and just kept it,” said Merritt, who in April defeated James at the Drake Relays in Iowa. “It’s all about giving the fans a good show and finishing up healthy.”
Regardless of the runner-up finish, Merritt said this race exemplifies everything good about track and field.
“That’s why I love it,” Merritt said about his passion for the sport. “It was great coming off the backstretch and down the homestretch with a great crowd. We both wanted to stay relaxed. … It was good, I enjoyed it.”
Running a sub-44 mark before June adds to an impressive early outdoor season start for Merritt, who concluded 2013 with a personal best 43.74 to win the world championships at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. In addition to his Drake Relays crown, Merritt also ran a stellar anchor leg to help the U.S. 4x400-meter team win at the IAAF World Relays in the Bahamas over Memorial Day weekend. Merritt rallied to overcome the Bahamas’ Golden Knights, the reigning Olympic champions, in the final lap.
“That was amazing,” Merritt said about the raucous World Relays, which have received rave reviews from athletes, spectators and the media. “There was so much trash talk. From little kids in strollers to older people walking around with canes, everyone was talking about their Golden Knights.”
Taking the baton from Christian Taylor, the 2012 Olympic triple jump champion who was running the third leg for the United States, Merritt made up the Bahamas’ 4-meter lead and then some. With Merritt running a 43.8-second anchor split, the Americans won in 2:57.25 seconds, more than a quarter second better than the Golden Knights’ 2:57.59.
“I told the guys in the prelims, just get us to the finals,” Merritt said, recalling the Bahamas event. “And I told Christian, just go handle your leg and I’ll go finish it, and that’s what I did.”
With no Olympic Games or world championships coming this season, Merritt said he has expanded his race schedule this season, a bit of a reward for his world title in 2013.
“I’ve been running a lot of races, for me this year, but that’s what I want to do,” Merritt said. “There’s no major championships to peak for, so why not run at some places I wouldn’t have run in had it been an Olympic or world championship year? Go to some new places and show up at some places where people want to see me.”“I had a great season last year,” Merritt added, “and now it’s time to reap some of the benefits.”