K.P. Mohan

He will be the favourite in the 400m at Beijing

Two defeats on the trot to LaShawn Merritt seemed to put Jeremy Wariner in some sort of pressure in his build-up for the Beijing Olympics. But the World and Olympic champion came right back the other day with a victory over his closest challenger in a world-leading 43.86 seconds in Paris.

Wariner has been the undisputed champion of the 400 metres the past four seasons. He looked stronger than ever before when he began the season with a 44.82 in Melbourne in February. He continued to dominate but Merritt ended his nine-race winning streak in Berlin, beating him 44.03 to 44.07. That was a shock.

Beaten again

More shock was to follow in the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene when Merritt beat him again, 44.00 to 44.20. Was Wariner vulnerable? Is there a chance for someone else to take the Olympic gold in Beijing?

The questions were bound to come; the answers, too, came quickly. Wariner bounced back with an emphatic victory at St. Denis, Paris, in the Golden League meeting on July 18. Merritt was second in 44.35.

“I am still the favourite,” Wariner has been quoted as saying about the expected showdown with Merritt in the Olympics final.

Ranked No. 1 for four straight years from 2004, the year in which he won the Olympic title, Wariner is from the Michael Johnson stable. The double world record holder manages the 24-year-old Texan’s financial interests and till this year, Johnson’s former coach,

Clyde Hart of Baylor University, has been Wariner’s coach also. Wariner, who won in Helsinki and Osaka World championships, has parted company with Hart and opted for another Baylor (Texas) coach, Michael Ford.

Merritt, who took the silver behind Wariner in Osaka last year, is only the ninth one-lap specialist to clock a 44.00.

He wants to the No. 1 in the event, while Wariner is looking to better Johnson’s World record of 43.18 returned in the 1999 World championships in Seville, Spain.

Third in all-time list

Johnson feels Wariner can break his record. At 43.45, Wariner is only behind Johnson and Butch Reynolds on the all-time list. If one excludes the Shanghai Golden last year where Wariner dropped out and Merritt won, the defending champion has a 13-2 win-loss record against the challenger.

Barring five races, Merritt placed poorer than second while Wariner won all his 13. Merritt knows the odds are stacked against him.

No wonder, in sheer frustration he said the other day: “No one trains as hard as I have to be No. 2.”

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