(Rio de Janeiro) – South African track and field sprinter Wayde van Niekerk won gold in the men’s 400 meters category and set the new world record at the Rio Olympics on Sunday.
Van Niekerk, running in the unfavoured lane eight, blasted off the final corner to time 43.03sec, 0.15sec quicker than Michael Johnson’s previous world best set in Seville in 1999, a record that had taken on mythical-like standing.
“I believed I could get the world record,” the 24-year-old South African said.
“I’ve dreamed of this medal since forever. I am blessed.”
Defending champion Kirani James of Grenada took silver in 43.76sec, with American Lashawn Merritt bronze (43.85).
“Congrats to Wayde on the new world record. I’m happy to be part of a race that made history. We have put this sport on a pedestal,” James said, adding that 400m runners normally have the habit of tying up as they hit the home stretch.
“Usually that’s what happens, the guys slow down a bit! But when you keep going like that, there’s going to be world records. It shows that there’s always room for guys to improve. He just did that and exemplified that.”
Despite Van Niekerk being world champion, his underwhelming heat runs had meant all eyes were on James and Merritt.
The Grenadian set off fast in lane five, Merritt on his coat-tails on the inside with Van Niekerk running solo out wide.
The trio had produced one of the races of the year in the 400m final at the 2015 world championships in Beijing, all going under 44 seconds as the South African emerged victorious.
And it was the same again in Rio, Van Niekerk exploding off the last bend and holding his form through the line in an extraordinary run as all eight runners finished under 44.61sec.
– It was a massacre, says Johnson –
“I have never seen anything like that,” Johnson told BBC, for whom he works as an analyst.
“It is amazing. That was a massacre by Van Niekerk. This young man has done something truly special. He could go under 43 seconds — I tried and failed.
“Being out in lane eight helped him, he was away from James and Merritt. He was running a time-trial.
“That was some style he broke it in,” Johnson said of Van Niekerk, who made sprint history by becoming the first athlete to dip under benchmark times in the 100, 200 and 400m.
Having already clocked 19.94 seconds and 43.48sec in the 200 and 400m, Van Niekerk timed 9.98sec in the 100m in March to set an athletics first.
Merritt, who was Olympic champion at the Beijing Games in 2008 before serving a 21-month ban for testing positive for a banned steroid in 2010, hailed Van Niekerk.
“It was a crazy race, a great moment in history. The world record was broken, the best man won,” Merritt said.
“I didn’t handle the last part as well as I wanted to. But I got a medal, I’ll take it, get my day’s rest and get ready for heats of the 200m.
“I knew it was going to be fast but I didn’t think it was going to be 43.00-fast.
“He ran his heart out. You’ve got to run it from the start to run 43.0.”
Britain’s Matthew Hudson-Smith finished last in 44.61sec, saying: “It was just mental, how quick that was, to be part of that.
“I thought I was gaining on them and then he (Van Niekerk) kicked in the back straight and I thought, ‘What was that?’.”
Five things to know about Wayde van Niekerk
One family, two medals – Van Nierkerk is not the only member of his family to have won a medal in Rio. His cousin is Cheslin Kolbe, who won bronze with the South African sevens rugby team last week. Van Nierkerk had a large number of his family at the stadium on Monday to witness his record-breaking run.
From Cape Town to Rio, via Beijing – The Cape Town-born star arrived in Rio with form. His winning time at the Beijing world championships last year was 43.48. In his slipstream that day taking bronze was the London 2012 champion Kirani James and silver went to LaShawn Merritt. That pair filled the minor places again in Rio, only in different order. In China, he became South Africa’s first world sprint champion.
Coached by a grandmother, and in Jamaica – In his quest for Olympic glory, the 24-year-old linked up with Usain Bolt’s coach Glen Mills in Jamaica in the run-up to Rio. “We have a good relationship with coach Mills, I’ve got to know him on the circuit over the last few months and years,” Van Niekerk said in June. His coach back home is a 74-year-old white-haired grandmother, Ans Botha. The unlikely combination teamed up three years ago, the move paying dramatic dividends.
Sprint history-maker – Van Niekerk created athletics history in March when he became the first person to break 10-sec for 100 metres, 20s for 200m and 44s for 400m. Having already clocked 19.94 seconds and 43.48sec in the 200 and 400m, Van Niekerk timed 9.98sec in the 100m in Bloemfontain.
Marketing man – Born and raised in Cape Town, Van Niekerk showed his aptitude for sport from a young age. But after attending a local college he continued his education, studying marketing at University of the Free State.
This story was sourced from ENCA