RIO DE JANEIRO – Early on Sunday evening in Rio’s Olympic Stadium, with fans slowly filling the stands, high jumpers warming up with lazy flops into the pit, and a pair of relentlessly upbeat hosts regaling the crowd with a high-volume samba lesson, the jumbo screens at each end of the track periodically displayed a digital countdown ticking off the minutes and seconds until the start of the men’s 100-meter final, still more than two hours away.
Anticipation for that event, the final race of the program and the much-ballyhooed showdown between Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin, would crackle like heat lightning through the rest of the night. But then, at 10 p.m., after Bolt and Gatlin had each won his semi and 25 minutes still remained before they were to settle into the blocks for their nine-something seconds of truth, another athlete entirely produced a thunderbolt of his own in the men’s 400 final.
Running in lane 8, from which he could see none of the other seven men in the race, 24-year-old Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa shot into the lead from the gun and simply kept going, pulling majestically away round the second curve, and all the way down the straight, from a field that included the last two Olympic champions in the event, crossing the line far clear in 43.03 seconds. That time, when it flashed on the screen beside the track, seemed at first surreal. It was a world record, breaking the mark set 17 years ago by American Michael Johnson, a mark that had once seemed untouchable.
Behind van Niekerk, James Kirani of Grenada, the 2012 Olympic champ, took the silver in 43.76, just .09 in front of LaShawn Merritt of the U.S., the gold medalist from Beijing in 2008. Machel Cedenio of Trinidad and Tobego finished fourth, in 44.01, a national record and a time that would have earned him a medal in any other Olympics. The next two runners, swept along by van Niekerk and his pursuers, finished with personal bests.
Moments after crossing the line, the new world record holder seemed momentarily stunned by what he had done, kneeling for a moment and then walking slowly back down the track before setting off on a victory lap.
Asked an hour or so later, as he stood barefoot in the lower reaches of the stadium, surrounded by reporters, what his strategy had been and what he was thinking during the race and in those moments just after, van Niekerk smiled and shook his head. “There was no strategy,” he said, smiling. ‘I just went out as hard as I could. I kept thinking someone was going to catch me because I felt so alone. I was thinking, ‘What’s going on? What’s going on?’ And I just drove for the line. Then the first thing I could think to do was to fall to my knees to thank God and to give thanks for having the chance to compete against such great athletes.”
Indeed, great things seem to happen when the trio of van Niekerk, James and Merritt get together for a lap of the track. In last summer’s world championships final, in the Birdcage Stadium in Beijing, the South African had first established himself as a star of the first magnitude, running 43.48 to take first ahead of Merritt’s 43.65 and James’s 43.78. That was the first time three men had ever run under 44 seconds in the same race.
Since then, the still-boyish van Niekerk, who is trained by 74-year-old Ans Botha (invariably identified in media profiles as “great-grandmother Ans Botha”), has continued to expand his already remarkable range. This past March in South Africa, he ran 9.98 for 100 meters, becoming the only runner in history to break 10 seconds for the 100, break 20 seconds for the 200 (he has a 19.94 best from 2015) and break 44 seconds for the 400.
And now, of course, he is knocking on the door of 43.
So monumental was van Niekerk’s performance on Sunday night that it left even the other athletes in his race grasping for ways to put it in perspective.
Said Ali Khamis Khamis, whose 44.36 for sixth place was a Bahrain national record, “I did my best to get to the front, but van Niekerk was gone—and he was in the hard lane!”
Bralon Taplin of Granada finished seventh in 44.45, a time that would have been good for bronze in London, and seemed genuinely thrilled to have been part of such a historic race. “I think he ran a wonderful race,” Cedenio said of van Niekerk. “The time tells it.” He paused and then grinned, “That’s one of the greatest races ever. That’s … crazy!”
As for van Niekerk’s go-for-broke approach to the race, Taplin observed, “All 400 meter runners know that if you get to 300 too fast you’re going to crash and burn. But there’s always the chance that you’re not going to crash. He didn’t crash.”
For his part, Merritt seemed a bit stunned by what had transpired. “I knew it was going to be a fast one,” he said of the much-anticipated rematch among himself, van Niekerk and James. “But I didn’t think it would be 43-oh fast.”
At that point a reporter asked from the crowd, “Where did he win the race?”
Merritt paused. “Uh…” he answered flatly, “when he ran 43-oh.” Then he added, charitably, “From the start. You gotta run hard from the start to run 43-oh.”
James said simply of the man who has now succeeded him as Olympic champion, “He just kept going and going and he never slowed down. I’m just proud to have been part of history.”
One runner not in the race also had an opinion on van Niekerk’s effort. Johnson, commenting on the BBC, said, “I have never seen anything from 200 meters to 400 meters like that. That was a massacre.”
Of course, as with every transcendent performance in track and field these days, van Niekerk’s mark will be greeted by some with skepticism. In the post-meet press conference one reporter asked the new record holder whether fans could trust the mark, implicitly raising the question of performance-enhancing drugs. The runner answered precisely, saying, “You can’t be anyone’s favorite. What you can do is control the control-ables, and stay as disciplined as you can, and focus on goals and life.”
Pressed moments later by another reporter, who asked how he would respond to people who say he is on drugs, van Niekerk said, simply, “I know I am not.”
Van Niekerk himself seemed wonder-struck at what he had accomplished. “I ran blind all the way,” he said. “I would literally have to go back and watch the race before I could tell you what happened. At this moment I’m just grateful for all that has happened to me today.”
In the end, even the man whom everyone had come to watch was transformed into a cheering spectator. After van Niekerk’s win, Bolt himself came up and pulled him close to congratulate him. Asked what the biggest star in track and field had said to the newest, van Niekerk said, “I trained with him in Jamaica for about two weeks, and when I was there, he told me, ‘You will break the world record.’ And he came to me after the race tonight and said, ‘I told you that you could do it!’”