Kirani James in the 400m heats at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)
London 2012 Olympic Games champion Kirani James, from Grenada, looked almost majestic when setting the fastest time in the 400m heats, clocking 44.93 despite only really working at full power over the first half of the race.
It will be a warning that James is in great shape although none of the other expected main protagonists had any difficulty in qualifying either, and IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 gold and silver medallists Wayne van Neikerk and LaShawn Merritt, who both beat James in the Chinese capital 12 months ago in an epic battle which saw three men going under 44 seconds in the same race for the first time, qualifying equally comfortably albeit in slower times.
Trinidad and Tobago’s 2014 world junior champion Machel Cedenio proved to be the fastest performer in the first heat and finished strongly down the home straight to win in 44.98.
USA’s Gil Roberts, second at the US Olympic Trials, also ran to form and took second in 45.27. After not showing much form this season, it was no surprise that Belgium’s former European champion and 2011 world championships was eliminated after only finishing fifth, with three automatic qualifiers from each heat.
Costa Rica’s former world indoor champion Nery Brenes took off like a man possessed from lane two in heat two but Grenada’s Bralon Taplin ran a much more measured race and was able to see that Brenes was closing on him due to the big screens at each end of the stadium.
Off the final bend, Brenes tied up slightly as Taplin held his form and came through to win in 45.15 with Brenes second in 45.53.
World champion Wayde van Niekerek was running out in lane seven in heat three but found himself challenged on his inside by a moderately revitalised London 2012 Olympic Games silver medallist Lugelin Santos, who has been below the radar in 2016 and not even got close to breaking 45 seconds.
Santos back on on the map
Santos was on the shoulder of van Niekerk coming off the last bend before the South African pulled away to win in 45.26 with Santos just outside his season’s best in 45.61.
Lalonde Gordon, the bronze medallist in London four years ago, prevailed in a three-way battle down the home straight to win heat four in 45.24, ahead of Slovenian record holder Luka Janezic who got second in 45.33.
The big surprise was that Great Britain’s two-time European champion Martyn Rooney struggled from the gun and seemed to have little of the zip he showed in Amsterdam last month, crossing the line fifth in 45.60 and he failed to progress.
USA’s 2008 Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt was a very relaxed winner of heat five clearly only working over the first 300 metres despite running blind out in lane eight.
Down the home straight, he glanced to his inside on several occasions to ascertain where his rivals were, and was able to ease off and just stride home at half power in 45.28 with Asian and world U20 champion Abdalelah Haroun of Qatar a distant second in 45.79.
Merritt’s successor in London four years ago, Grenada’s Kirani James employed similar tactics running in lane six of the following heat and was able to almost jog home with 44.93, with Jamaica’s Rusheen McDonald having to work considerably harder to secure second place in 45.22.
Bahrain’s Ali Khamis Khamis was a surprise winner of the seventh and final heat in 45.12, running a well-measured race which saw Czech Republic’s two-time world indoor champion Pavel Maslak scrape into the semi-finals when he finished fifth in 45.54.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF