Plaudits flood in for star man Van Niekerk
Nobody was going to steal the show from Usain Bolt’s 100m title defence on day nine of Rio 2016 but Wayde van Niekerk's remarkable record-breaking triumph in the men’s 400m came close, and suggested that, in the 24-year-old South African, athletics has a new superstar in the making.
Not only did van Niekerk smash Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record, posting a new mark of 43.03 seconds and relegating the previous two Olympic 400m champions, Kirani James and LaShawn Merit to silver and bronze, he did so running from the unfavoured lane eight.
Bolt feels proud
Shortly after the South African crossed the finish line, Usain Bolt made a point of taking time out from his 100m final preparations to rush over to congratulate him.
“When he got the world record I was like, wow!" said Bolt, who has spent time training with the South African in Jamaica this year. “I told him in Jamaica 'my coach said you're probably the only guy right now other than me who can break this 400m world record'. I'm really happy for him, I'm really proud of him.”
Johnson predicts greater things to come
Michael Johnson, who saw his 17-year world record smashed by Van Niekerk, was left dumbfounded by the quality of the South African’s run, and predicted that he was now a real contender to emerge as the next big thing in athletics after Bolt.
“He is so young, what else can he do? Can he go under 43 seconds? It is something I thought I could do, but never did,” said the American. "Usain Bolt will be retiring soon, this could be the next star.”
A champions’ champion
Van Niekerk’s performance drew breathless plaudits from the two former champions who he had left in his wake to win gold. “It was incredible. To be honest, I'm just happy to be part of history,” said silver medallist Kirani James, the 2012 champion.
“He just wouldn't slow down. Usually guys slow down a bit in the last hundred but he just kept going. When you keep going like that obviously a world record is going to fall.”
Bronze medallist Merritt was equally surprised by how fast Van Niekerk went. “I knew the time was going to be fast but I didn't think it was going to be 43.0 fast," said the 2008 champion. "He ran his heart out. You’ve got to run from the start to run 43.0. This is a great era and I'm proud to be part of it.”
James's compatriot Bralon Taplin, who finished seventh a full second and a half behind Van Niekerk said the record run had changed the landscape for athletics. “For him to break that record has opened the barriers for every athlete out there," he said.
Super gran behind star’s success
Meanwhile Van Niekerk had an important tribute of his own to pay – to 74-year-old Ans Botha, his coach and mentor.A former athlete herself, Botha, who is a great grandmother, has been coaching Van Niekerk since 2012. It might not be the most conventional of athlete-coach partnerships, but according to the runner, Botha has played a massive part in propelling him to the pinnacle of international athletics.
“She's an amazing woman," says Van Niekerk. “She's played a huge role in where I am today. She's really kept me very disciplined and very focused on the goal and where I need to be.”
"I can go out on to the track and reach every limit and know that everything is possible… I'm just grateful to be a part of the history that she has made as a coach and just grateful to be where I am today.”
And where can he go tomorrow? In his own words: “the sky's the limit”.