By Nick Mulvenney
LONDON (Reuters) - Aries Merritt capped a phenomenal two months by storming to gold in the 110 metres hurdles at the London Olympics on Wednesday, bringing the title back to the United States for the first time in 16 years.
The 27-year-old world indoor champion made the most of perfect conditions on a balmy evening at the Olympic stadium to run his fifth sub-13 second time in the last two months and claim victory in a personal best time of 12.92 seconds.
Merritt made an excellent start but was shadowed by defending champion and world record holder Dayron Robles until the Cuban pulled up after jumping the sixth hurdle with a hamstring problem.
Merritt powered on and, after world champion Jason Richardson gained on him with a late surge, dipped low to cross the line first in the fastest time in the world this year.
"The gold medal means everything," Merritt told reporters. "The U.S. haven't had a gold medal since Allen Johnson in 1996. It's phenomenal. To be here in this atmosphere is really special.
"I'm so excited, words can't explain how excited I am right now. People were talking about a world record but 12.92 into a headwind is still pretty impressive. I am happy with that."
Richardson won silver for a U.S. one-two in 13.04 seconds and bronze went to Hansle Parchment, who crossed the line in a Jamaican record time of 13.12.
"Going one-two, it says we are a major global power when it comes to hurdling. It was an honour to be part of a race where America got the gold," Richardson said.
"The guys were talking about closing the gap on China, I know America will get that medal haul and we will show we are the best track and field nation in the world."
Merritt has often been overshadowed by better-known compatriots in recent years but hit a rich vein of form this season.
After beating former world record holder Liu Xiang at the world indoor championships to claim his first major title, Merritt really hit his stride in the run-up to the Games.
His first run of 12.93 seconds won him the U.S. trials and he backed that up with two more runs in the same time. He added the fourth (12.94) to reach the final on Wednesday.
Robles, who has barely competed this year because of a long-standing complaint caused by his flat feet, slapped out at a hurdle in frustration at being unable to coax his body through two races in two hours.
Disqualified at the world championships in Daegu last year for impeding Liu in the final, Robles has lost both his major international titles in the last 12 months but said he would race on.
"I had a problem with my hamstring and I had to stop," he told reporters.
"I'd been having problems all year with the other hamstring. I did everything I could. I ran super easy in the semi-finals. I was going for it but that's athletics and that's the Olympics.
"I've got to carry on."
China's Liu, who won the title in Athens eight years ago, fell in his first-round heat after injuring his Achilles tendon.
(Additional reporting by Rex Gowar and Gene Cherry, editing by Ed Osmond)