RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Bursting out of the blocks in lane eight, Wayde van Niekerk didn’t see another runner during the entire Olympic 400-meter final.
He didn’t need to. It was just him against the clock.
The South African sprinter broke Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record on Sunday night in Rio de Janeiro, leaving two of the greatest one-lap runners of this era in his dust. Van Niekerk finished in 43.03 seconds — 0.15 seconds faster than Johnson ran in 1999. To think, Johnson’s mark was considered one of the almost untouchable records in track.
The 24-year-old Van Niekerk leaned at the finish line, which he really didn’t need to do as Kirani James of Grenada and LaShawn Merritt of the Unites States weren’t even in the picture. James, the defending Olympic champion, finished with the silver and Merritt, who won gold eight years ago in Beijing, hung on for bronze as he staggered across the line.
Van Niekerk drove a wedge in rivalry between James and Merritt at the world championships last August, when he beat them both with such a lung-searing performance that he left the track on a stretcher.
Now, he’s the fastest ever.
This time at the finish, instead of collapsing Van Niekerk dropped to one knee and put his head in his hands. Moments later, he put the multi-colored South African flag around his shoulders and took off his spikes. As he did so, Van Niekerk pointed at the clock to make sure everyone saw his time.
Hard to miss. It was that impressive.
Even Johnson thought so. In comments for the BBC — he’s a track and field TV analyst for them — Johnson said: “Oh my God! From lane eight, a world record. He took it out so quick. I have never seen anything from 200 to 400 like that.
“That was a massacre from Wayde van Niekerk. He just put those guys away.”
AP Sports Writer Gerald Imray contributed.