RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The quality is so high in the 400 meters right now that Kirani James really isn't comfortable with his defending Olympic champion tag. He doesn't want that target on his back in a hot-shot field like this.

The way James sees it, Wayde van Niekerk is the current world champion and LaShawn Merritt won the 2013 world title. So go pick from one of those two for the favorite in Rio de Janeiro. There's hardly anything to choose between any of them for Sunday night's final.

"It's gonna be competitive. Really looking forward to it," James said.

The one-lap race has turned into an epic three-man rivalry. It could be one of the races of the Olympics and could push one of those guys to the brink of Michael Johnson's 17-year-old world record of 43.18 seconds. Johnson's Olympic record of 43.49 from Atlanta '96 is definitely in the firing line in Brazil.

"I think that if there was a record to be broken, it would be in a scenario that we have right now," James' coach, Harvey Glance, said. "Those three guys pushing each other to greatness."

Record or no, what you are going to get at the Olympic Stadium is three runners that will take each other, and the rest of the field, to the edge.

At the world championships last year, the South African Van Niekerk put a wedge in the rivalry between Grenada's James and American Merritt, who shared the previous five major titles. To do it, Van Niekerk had to run himself into the ground, collapsing on the Beijing track in exhaustion after winning in 43.48 seconds to make him the fourth-fastest 400-meter runner ever.

Van Niekerk's first act as world champion was to get carted off to hospital on a stretcher, flat out. That's what it takes in the 400 these days.

"If I ran any harder I would have probably left on a stretcher," said James, who took bronze.

Not wanting to show any weakness in this pack, Van Niekerk shrugged off the stretcher incident as something that was "dramatized way more than what actually happened."

"I mean, I'm always exhausted after my races. I just need a moment to sit down and recover," he said.

If you're looking for a way to separate the three, Merritt, the oldest at 30 and the 2008 Olympic champion, had the world lead of 43.97 seconds coming in to Rio. He was the only one of them to break 44 seconds in the buildup. But 43.97 seconds doesn't guarantee you anything in this era of the 400.

"It's definitely one of the tough events right now," Merritt said. "I'm just excited to be a part of it, to be a part of a great event during a great era. We'll probably run fast come this final."

This rivalry hasn't erupted with trash talk or anything like that, but it's simmering nicely.

"When we do see each other we do acknowledge each other," James said. "We don't hang out and have dinner and breakfast together."

Trying to figure out the race tactics doesn't get you any closer to picking a winner, either.

Merritt, with the fastest time in the 200 meters this season and chasing a 200-400 Olympic double, has out-and-out sprinting power. Van Niekerk is a more flighty runner but quick, too. The 24-year-old South African is the only man to go under 10 seconds over 100 meters, under 20 over 200 and under 44 for the 400.

With James, who is 23, his staying power and easy stride makes him the best finisher, according to coach Glance, who's finding this situation a real challenge for his own skills.

"It's tough to coach against because you've got three different scenarios that have got to kick in," Glance said. "But, one way or another, for 400 meters he (James) gets the job done. And that's the only thing I worry about. I don't worry about 100 meters. I don't worry about 200 meters. I worry about 400 meters."


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