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LONDON -- Had it not been the Olympics, LaShawn Merritt said he might not even have lined up for his heat in the men’s 400 meters Saturday morning. But this is the Olympics, so he got in the starting blocks and hoped for the best with the strained left hamstring he has been nursing the past two weeks.
The best did not happen. Merritt felt discomfort in the hamstring early in the race and, rather than risk serious injury, he pulled up and did not finish, ending his hopes of successfully defending his 2008 gold medal.
Merritt was the favorite in the 400 until two weeks ago, when he strained the lower hamstring on his left leg at a Diamond League meet in Monaco. He said that he has been undergoing a lot of treatment for the leg since then and that the leg was feeling stronger, but he hadn’t really tested it before Saturday.
“I was running, but it wasn’t at competition speeds,’’ Merritt said. “I thought I could get through these rounds. But, as I got around the first curve, I started to feel lit. And I think I just need some more rest.”
Although the U.S. lost its top gold-medal contender in the 400, the 100-meter dash heats went much better. Tyson Gay, Ryan Bailey and Justin Gatlin all easily advanced to Sunday’s semifinals by winning their heats. Bailey and Gatlin had the day’s top two times, with Bailey tying his personal best of 9.88 despite an intentional slow start and Gatlin running 9.97. Gay finished in 10.08.
All three ran faster than Usain Bolt did (10.09), but the Jamaican also stumbled slightly out of the blocks before recovering and cruising to win his heat. "I'm glad it happened now,” he said. Jamaica’s Yohan Blake had the day’s third-fastest time at 10 flat.
Gatlin won the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics but missed the 2008 Games while serving a four-year suspension for a positive PEDs test. He said he shed a few tears when he took the track Saturday.
“In 2004, I don’t think a lot of people expected me to go out there and win,’’ he said. “I think I was even less than a dark horse. I think my teammate, Shawn Crawford, was the dark horse in that race. To come back here for my fans who are rooting for me -- I want to go out there and put on a great show for them. To me, it’s not a goal this time, it’s more of a mission.’’
Gay is recovering from hamstring injuries that had him running in pain this spring. He said he felt good Saturday while running at “about 75 percent.’’ The 100 final is Sunday evening.
The loss of Merritt leaves America’s 400 hopes resting on Tony McQuay, who had a slower time Saturday (45.48) than Oscar Pistorius (45.44), and Bryshon Nellum, who was briefly in a wheelchair four years ago after being shot in the legs during a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles.
“It took me about three weeks to get back,’’ said Nellum, who had the day’s 10th-best time. “I started in a wheelchair and then to a boot and crutches. Then I started to walk and jog and then run.’’
Merritt did not rule out running in the 4x400 relay next weekend, but he sounded as if that wouldn’t happen. “We have a lot of guys, some 400 hurdlers who can run the 4x400,’’ he said. “It wouldn’t make sense on my part to not let those guys run.
“I have a long career ahead of me, and my job is now to support the USA.’’