Can Merritt do the double in Rio?

28 Jul 2016

All eyes were on Allyson Felix at the US trials to see if she would get the chance to compete for the 200m/400m double in Rio. It was only a little more than 0.01 that stopped her securing her 200m place. Almost while we weren’t looking, LaShawn Merritt decided he was going to do the double after securing his places. What are his chances of making history by taking gold in both?

First the context: only three athletes in history have completed a 200m/400m double. Two women: Valerie Brisco-Hooks (1984) and Marie-Josie Perec (1996), and one man: Michael Johnson (1996).

Right now the world rankings suggest he is in with a good chance. He is top of both with his trial performances—19.74 in his 200m semi-final and 43.97 in the 400m final. Both were achieved through “doing the rounds” which totalled six races in nine days. In Rio, Merritt will have to contend with (if he gets to both finals) six races in seven days. He will also have to up his game in the earlier rounds of the 400m compared with the trials. This is a tough schedule, but Johnson had it tougher: completing eight races in seven days contending four rounds of the 400m on consecutive days and then all four rounds of the 200m in two days.

There is a single reason why the double looks impossible: Usain Bolt. Merritt’s 19.74 is a time that would have won five out of the last eight Olympic finals, but two of the faster times are by the Jamaican, who can, quite simply, put the 200m completely out of sight of any other athlete on earth. Like with Johnson in 1996, it’s difficult not to see this as a race for second if Bolt is in the field.

Olympic-winning 200m times v Merritt’s SB

On to his strongest event: the 400m. Merritt knows what it takes to win the Olympic 400m. He did it in Beijing with 43.75, the third fastest Olympic time after Johnson in 1996 and Watts in 1992. In fact, since 1988 the men’s 400m final has been won in 44.00 or under (Wariner clocked 44.00 in 2004). Merritt is the only quarter miler this season to have put this marker down.

The signs look good, but van Niekerk’s stunning performance in Beijing last year and the broader depth of 400m running in 2015 shows that he has more competition than ever. 400m gold has also proved itself a young man’s game. Johnson aside (twice), you have to go back to 1976 to find a male 400m Olympic champion older than 23. The reigning champion, Kirani James was 19 in London, as was Steve Lewis when he won in 1988. Merritt himself was 22 when he won in Beijing—and would be the first 400m runner to win two Olympic titles with an eight year gap. His strongest event may not even yield gold.

Olympic 400m champion ages (years) – 1984-2012

The 200m/400m double is not undertaken lightly. It’s a select few athletes that are ever in a position to compete in these two events at this level. Maybe another year without Bolt or a hot 400m he would be on for double gold, but as circumstance has it two podium finishes would mark a big achievement. Merritt says the 200m is a stepping stone so he can challenge the 400m world record; that, it seems, is the real prize for him.

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