South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk smashes Michael Johnson’s record to claim 400m gold


Wayde van Niekerk is a special, special athlete, the first ever to have run under 10 seconds for the 100m, 20 seconds for 200m and 44 for 400m. Now make that last a damn-near sub-43.

In front of a boisterous Rio crowd, Van Niekerk broke the first men’s track and field world record of these Games with a blistering, barely believable 43.03sec from the unlikely position of lane eight, destroying the two previous Olympic champions in the process.

Michael Johnson’s towering mark of 43.18sec had stood since 1999 and rarely been seriously challenged. Van Niekerk had kept his powder drier than most in qualifying here, thus is draw in lane eight, but when the gun went he rocketed from the blocks.

It looked, of course, as if he had gone off stupidly fast through the first 200m, and the expectation was that Kirani James, the defending champion from Grenada, and LaShawn Merritt of the United States – who fought like pitbulls in the middle lanes – would haul Van Niekerk in through the bends.

It didn’t happen. The South African in fact went faster in the second half of the race, slingshotting into the home straight in a blur of limbs. His winning margin against one of the fastest 400m fields ever assembled verged on the ridiculous. It was, as Johnson said on television commentary, “a massacre”.

“I believed I could get the world record. I’ve dreamed of this medal forever,” said Van Niekerk. “I am blessed.”

His rivals were somewhere between stunned and aghast afterwards. “I knew the time was going to be fast, [but] I didn’t think it was going to be 43.0 fast. It is what it is. You take it,” said Merritt. “He ran his heart out.”


James, a wonderful champion at London 2012 who might have been expected to dominate the distance for years, was incredulous at such a performance from the outside lane. “I was thinking the race would be around 43-mid,” he said. “He really couldn’t see anybody, I wasn’t sure how he was going to run his race out of lane eight, but he just kept going. He wouldn’t slow down.”

James referenced the performance of a fellow Grenadian in the Olympic final of 12 years past to attempt a benchmark. “The fastest Olympic time out of lane eight was Alleyne Francique in 2004 [44.66sec], so for him to come in and do that, a second and a half faster … I think that’s just incredible.”


Van Nierkerk is coached by a 74-year-old great-grandmother, Ans Botha: “She’s an amazing woman. She has played a huge role in who I am today and kept me very disciplined and very focused on the role and who I need to be. I’m very grateful my coach has pushed me to the limit. Anything is possible. I’m just grateful I can trust in her work.”

Van Niekerk is a 24-year-old from Cape Town, and he carried South Africa’s flag at the opening ceremony. He is not exactly a new face, having won last year’s world championship in Beijing, but of the three fastest men here was probably considered least likely for gold. Underestimating him is not a mistake that will be repeated.

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