2011 proved to be a year of “old v new” as the old guard struggled to maintain and find form, while the young guns searched to find themselves. And in the backdrop of it all the biggest story of the year was the impending return to competition of defending World and Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt.
The young guns dominated the early action, as the collegiate quarter milers came out of a hot indoor season that saw Kirani James (GRN, 44.80) Tony McQuay (USA, 45.21) and Demetrius Pinder (BAH, 45.33) turn in some sizzling marks. Unfortunately for McQuay, he would be injured in his heat of the deuce at NCAA’s and would see his season derailed for the early part of outdoors. There was no such problem for Grenadian’s James and Rondell Bartholmew, as Bartholomew screamed a 44.65 on Apr 2nd that would lead the world until the opening rounds in Daegu – Bartholomew would not run as fast for the rest of the year! James was not quite as fast but his outdoor opener of 45.12 (Apr 23rd) would be a portent of things to come.
Meanwhile, veteran Jeremy Wariner (USA) was starting to show signs of being his “old self” as he went 45.61 (Apr 23rd), 45.19 (Apr 30) and 44.88 (May 7th) in quick succession. The collegiates kept the heat on in May and June, however, as James screamed a 44.86 to win the SEC crown, then McQuay countered with a 44.87 in the first round of the NCAA outdoor champs. They would go head to head in the NCAA final in less than ideal conditions with James (45.10) taking the title just ahead of McQuay’s 45.14.
McQuay would then meet veteran Wariner in a battle for the U.S. title – a battle that McQuay would win going away 44.68 to 44.98. Another veteran would get upended that same weekend, as Jamaican record holder Jermaine Gonzalez found himself on the outside looking in, with a 4th place finish at the Jamaican Trials for Daegu. Gonzales would end up making the Jamaican team however, as 2nd place Leford Greene chose to focus on the 400H and dropped out of the open 400, leaving a spot for Gonzalez.
On the heels of all of those fireworks, several principles in the event suddenly went quiet, as McQuay would not race again until Daegu, and Wariner & James would only race once each. Wariner’s 45.50 for 4th in Paris would mark the end of his season as he would race no more, and announced shortly thereafter that he was withdrawing from Worlds due to injury. James’ 44.61 to win in London was a PR and would signal that he was very fit ahead of Daegu. Among those defeated by James, was Jermaine Gonzalez – 2nd in 44.85. It was part of a busy summer for Gonzalez who ran four times in his lead up to Daegu – winning in Lausanne and Stockholm, and coming third is Paris in addition to the London race.
The win in Stockholm was an SB and marked the return to the track of LaShawn Merritt – finally eligible to compete a scant four weeks before the World Championships. Merritt’s season opening 44.74, pushed Gonzales to his SB and immediately put Merritt into contention for the global title. Unfortunately for Merritt, there was only one more opportunity to get sharp before Daegu (London where Merritt wasn’t entered) as after London there was a three week lull in activity with no competitions leading into the World Championships!
So once again Daegu marked the place where the elite went to meet – as head to head match ups in most events were hard to find in 2011. It didn’t take things long to heat up once everyone arrived in Daegu, as LaShawn Merritt flew to a world leading 44.35 in the 3rd heat of the FIRST round easily the fastest first round (3 round format) ever! That was the good news. The bad news in round one was the injury elimination of Tony McQuay in the final round (5) as his injury from earlier in the year resurfaced and the U.S. champion was only able to finish 6th in his heat. The semis saw Merritt under 45 seconds again (44.76) as he was the only competitor to do so. Lining up for the final the race was clearly between Merritt, James, and Gonzales, but as they came off the turn Merritt looked to be headed for a repeat of his ’09 win as he was a couple of meters ahead of James with the rest of the field in tow. James would slowly eat into the lead as they headed up the stretch however, until in literally the final couple of strides he edged ahead for a 44.60 to 44.63 win over the defending champion – becoming the youngest ever World champion in the event. James Merritt and Gonzales would meet once more in Zurich with James setting a PR 44.36 to win over Merritt’s 44.67.
And now it’s time to hand out the rankings. A task that was somewhat easier than the other events so far as there were some clear divisions among the top competitors.
James was an easy choice for the #1 spot. For starters he was undefeated, going 8 – 0 on the season with major wins at the NCAA championships, London, Zurich and Berlin. He had the #2 time in the world and beat everyone that was anyone this year. And, oh yeah, he won the World title. In the process he became the #2 Junior of all time behind the legendary Steve Lewis (USA). James did everything he needed to this year.
|#2||LaShawn Merritt||United States|
Merritt also did everything he needed to, or at least everything one could given his circumstances. He led the world on the clock, took the silver medal at the World Championships, and in five late season races beat everyone that mattered on the season that wasn’t injured by the time he arrived. He was 2 -3 on the season, but never worse than 2nd, including a 2 -1 record over World’s 4th placer Jermaine Gonzales.
Though 4th in Daegu, Gonzales was 2 – 1 over bronze medalist Kevin Borlee. His 3 – 8 record included wins in Ostrava, Lausanne and Stockholm. And only at Jamaica Nationals and Worlds did he finish worse than 3rd – finishing 4th on each occasion.
Choosing this spot was the toughest of the five. At the end of the day it was his 2 – 0 record over the next man on the list and his wins in Kingston, Rome and Paris (4 – 7 on the season) that earned him this spot. His biggest failure was not making the Daegu final, but his wins in Europe and head to heads get Brown this spot.
Borlee won the bronze medal in Daegu, but his wins were in unimpressive meets in Izmir, Madrid, and Budapest in a 3 – 8 season. IN addition, he lost to Brown in New York and London. Makng this one of those times when the Circuit outweighed Worlds for me.
That’s my assessment of the men’s event. Next up the women’s 400.