Sometimes figures can do the work of explaining an athlete’s brilliance. In Wayde van Niekerk’s case, they speak for themselves: he is the only person in history to have run below 10 seconds in the 100m, below 20 seconds in the 200m and faster than 44 seconds over 400m – and a sparkling run in the latter gave the Rio crowd a special demonstration of his talents.
Van Niekerk arrived at the 2016 Games amid a rich vein of form. He had taken the world by storm at the World Championships in Beijing last year, winning the 400m title in 43.48 seconds and serving notice that he would be favourite for the event when all eyes settled on Rio.
Despite being a force over all three distances, Van Niekerk concentrated solely on the 400m at these Olympics. It proved an inspired decision. The 24-year-old was fresh, fit and focused, and by the time he entered a buoyant Olympic Stadium there was a sense he was ready to produce something special.
Van Niekerk set off at a searing pace, and just kept going. A field that could have been expected to provide him with intense competition just could not keep up, although their pace certainly spurred him on to what happened next. He crossed the finish line in a time of 43.03 seconds, beating the legendary Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old record of 43.18 seconds in sensational fashion. To add to the achievement, he managed it all from lane eight – and became the first Olympic or World 400m champion to do so.
The South African’s rivals were stunned by what they had come up against. Kirani James, of Grenada, who took silver in a hugely respectable 43.76 seconds, admitted: “I was thinking the race would be around 43-mid. 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.”
Van Niekerk, who had carried South Africa’s flag at the Opening Ceremony but was now experiencing the greatest sporting high of all, celebrated with a mixture of delight and disbelief. To have achieved all this at such a young age suggests that there will be plenty more to come – and he should be at his peak by Tokyo 2020.
The perfect postscript to this tale? Van Niekerk is coached by 74-year-old great-grandmother Ans Botha, who is credited with switching his attention to the 400m and has no plans to call time on a 50-year career. “She is an amazing women,” van Niekerk said after his triumph in Rio. “She has played a huge part in who I am today and kept me very disciplined and very focused on the role and who I need to be. I’m grateful my coach has pushed me to the limit. Anything is possible.”
Watch more videos of Wayde van Niekerk on the Olympic Channel.