DAEGU, South Korea (AP) — 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 to 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 — even if, until now, it’s been mostly on the youth level — 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.”