Thursday, July 16, 2009

Berlin Match Ups - Men's 400

IAAF World Athletics Final 2008 Day 1

One of the things that makes track and field exciting is great head to head competition. Nowhere are the head to head battles any bigger than at the World Championships and Berlin will have its fair share. With four weeks to go before the Opening ceremony, I will be taking a look at several of these match ups, starting with the men's 400 and Jeremy Wariner and Lashawn Merritt.

Wariner owned the 400 in the middle of this decade winning the Olympics in 2004 and the World Championships in '05 & '07. Wariner rarely lost, and then only in meets that were off the radar and really didn't matter - about once a year. But something happened on his way to a defense of his Olympic title last year - a worthy opponent stepped up his game, Lashawn Merritt.

Merritt emerged as a freshman at East Carolina University during the 2005 indoor season - right after Wariner won Olympic gold. A triple threat sprinter in high school (10.47/20.72/45.25), Merritt's 44.93 indoor 400 made him #2 all time behind Michael Johnson and got him a professional contract before he ever ran an outdoor race in college. Merritt had to work his way to the top of the professional ranks however - placing 4th at nationals in his initial try and just missing a spot in the 400 at Helsinki. Even though he finished in the 4th position he was also overlooked for a spot in the 4x4 final, running only in the opening heats. 2006 saw him improve to 44.14 however, and 2007 found him taking silver to Wariner in Osaka. Merritt's perseverance finally paid off last year as he dominated the world, and Wariner, capping the season with his gold medal performance in Beijing.

Finally turning the tables last year, Merritt has been a man of confidence this year. Running well enough to be the #5 performer in the world in the 200, and beating everyone in his path in the 400. Back in Texas, Wariner has competed sparingly, and mid season announced that he was going back to the coach that guided him to all of his gold medals - the same coach that he left early last year amid contract squabbles - Clyde Hart.

Since announcing his return to coach Hart at US Nationals, Wariner has been M.I.A., apparently getting back to basics with his old coach in an attempt to regain his throne - a throne that Merritt clearly has no intent on giving up without a fight! They have yet to meet head to head this year so Berlin will be their "OK Corral"!

So the question on the table is simple: will Merritt follow up his Olympic gold with World gold or will Wariner get back on the winning track?

Wariner became dominant by running with uncanny precision - almost like a human metronome. A first 200 in the 21.0/21.2 range, was followed by a third 100 that crushed the competition. The final 100 was a matter of holding form and holding off any challengers. Something he did with ease from '04 to '07. Then last year Merritt learned how to control his speed to cruise the same first 200 and added new found strength to stay with Wariner in that third 100 - something no one else had been able to do during his reign on top! The final 100 found both men going toe to toe to the line in every race except the Olympic final - where Wariner uncharacteristically seemed to have nothing left. The Olympic final aside they were near mirror images of each other all season - with most of their races being decided by a few hundredths of a second.

This year Merritt seems better than ever. Though he has yet to run under 44.50, he consistently cruises 44.5's as if he is out on training runs. Wariner on the other hand hasn't been seen since June, and his earlier runs while efficient, have lacked his flow of previous seasons. With Wariner being "quiet" during the European season there is an air of mystery to their impending showdown in Berlin. What's he been working on? Will he have a new "twist" to his race / race pattern in Berlin? His coach, Clyde Hart, is the man that crafted WR holder Michael Johnson's stellar career after all - and until their split last year, Hart had Wariner on the same path. But Hart and Johnson never had to face a challenge the likes of Merritt - a real sprinter running the 400 - because Johnson was always the real sprinter in the race! And it was his ability to run with controlled speed that made him superior to his opponents.

So while Wariner has become the master of the 400 from a rhythm standpoint (The Human Metronome), it is Merritt that has the better foot speed. Speed that he has combined with improved strength to craft a race that is more like that of Michael Johnson - Wariner's manager and mentor! Thus we are now presented with the compelling picture of Wariner competing against the image of his mentor!

Looking at the race in this manner - the precision like execution of Wariner versus the speed and strength of Merritt - I'm going to go with the man most like the current WR holder, Lashawn Merritt, as this year's World Champion. The 400 after all is a sprint - and speed kills! Unfortunately not enough sprinters take to this race - but when they do it's awesome. Quincy Watts did, dominated, won Olympic gold, and ran 43.50 before injuries ended his career. Michael Johnson did, dominated, won double Olympic gold, quadruple World gold, and set a WR of 43.18 along the way.

Merritt started his run of gold last year in Beijing by using the same kind of blistering third 100 that made Watts and Johnson so lethal. The same spot in the race that Wariner used to craft his own period of dominance. But while Wariner has held "pace" in putting distance between himself and the opposition, the "sprinters" hit the gas and leave the opposition wondering what happened. It is that "wonder" that I saw in Wariner in Beijing, as it happened before he was able to respond. My crystal ball says that we will see that same acceleration in the third 100 from Merritt in Berlin once again, and that while Wariner will respond, it won't be fast enough. Merritt leads off the turn and past the finish line, and he will once again have gold placed around his neck - as we are witnessing the year of validation for the next dominant force in the event.

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