Before settling into his starting blocks for the Olympic 400m final in the Beijing National Stadium yesterday, LaShawn Merritt blew a kiss and pointed up towards the smog-free sky. He was about to honour the memory of his late brother, and also answer a prayer for American sprinting – if the 400m race qualifies as a sprint, that is.
It will have to now, on the other side of the pond at least. The spanner that had already been thrown in the works of the US speed machines (by Usain Bolt in the men's 100m and 200m, and by the clean-sweeping Jamaican trio in the women's 100m) was still lodged in place and wreaking havoc in the Bird's Nest arena yesterday.
First came the women's 200m final. At the World Championships in Osaka last year, Allyson Felix was a woman apart at the distance, prevailing by the biggest winning margin in a global 200m final since Fanny Blankers-Koen's victory at the London Olympics of 1948. Veronica Campbell was 0.53sec behind in second place. Yesterday the 26-year-old Jamaican, now Veronica Campbell-Brown, gave it both barrels and emerged the clear winner in 21.74sec. Felix finished 0.19sec behind, an also-ran of a silver medallist.
Then came the dropped American batons at the final exchange in both the men's and women's 4 x 100m relay heats. With them went a century-long stretch of at least one US gold medal in one of the traditional sprint events. The last time they drew a blank (excepting the boycotted Moscow Games of 1980, naturally) was in the London Olympics of 1908.
And so the starred and striped hopes shifted upwards in distance to the 400m, the quarter mile of yore. The US had already suffered what was for them an unexpected blow in the women's final, Christine Ohuruogu having overhauled Sanya Richards to claim a British gold. As the eight men's finalists entered the home straight, there was little chance of a repeat. Croydon's Martyn Rooney was well off the pace and proceeded to cross the line a disappointing sixth in 45.12sec. As he did so, the US were already celebrating a clean sweep that was led by the inspired Merritt.
The 22-year-old from Portsmouth (Portsmouth, Virginia) was a class apart. He won in 43.75sec, a chasm of 0.99sec separating him from defending champion Jeremy Wariner, with David Neville snatching bronze by throwing himself over the line. Not quite redemption but a consolation of sorts for the crestfallen US, then. And a golden tribute to Antwan Merritt, who was killed when he was thrown out of a fifth floor college dorm window in Raleigh, North Carolina nine years ago.
"When I run I always think of my brother," LaShawn reflected. "Every time I go on the track I say a prayer in my brother's remembrance. He plays a big role in my success." A success in Beijing yesterday that placed into perspective the mere disappointments of dropped relay batons and go-slow sprinters.