Thunderbolt strikes early

South African Wayde van Niekerk finishing the 400m in 43.03sec, leaving defending champion Kirani James of Grenada (lane six, 43.76) and American LaShawn Merritt (43.85), Beijing 2008 gold medallist, trailing in his wake.
South African Wayde van Niekerk finishing the 400m in 43.03sec, leaving defending champion Kirani James of Grenada (lane six, 43.76) and American LaShawn Merritt (43.85), Beijing 2008 gold medallist, trailing in his wake.PHOTOS: REUTERS
South African Wayde van Niekerk finishing the 400m in 43.03sec, leaving defending champion Kirani James of Grenada (lane six, 43.76) and American LaShawn Merritt (43.85), Beijing 2008 gold medallist, trailing in his wake.
South African Wayde van Niekerk.PHOTOS: REUTERS
South African Wayde van Niekerk finishing the 400m in 43.03sec, leaving defending champion Kirani James of Grenada (lane six, 43.76) and American LaShawn Merritt (43.85), Beijing 2008 gold medallist, trailing in his wake.
Michael Johnson. PHOTOS: REUTERS

Van Niekerk's stunning 400m world record whets appetite before Bolt-Gatlin main show

RIO DE JANEIRO • Win or lose, Usain Bolt was always going to dominate the Olympic headlines on Sunday. But Wayde van Niekerk offered his embattled sport some hope for the future beyond the Jamaican's impending retirement with a remarkable world record on the Rio track.

Twenty minutes before Bolt won his third successive 100m title, the South African set an unrelenting pace to clinch the gold and break Michael Johnson's 17-year 400m record in just 43.03 seconds.

It was the oldest standing men's sprint record - Bolt owns the 100m and 200m marks - and one many thought might never be broken.

"I believed it was possible," the 24-year-old said. "I am just glad things went my way tonight.

"I'm still a bit amazed, I still have to pinch myself with what just happened."

Van Niekerk's achievement was all the more remarkable for the fact that he ran in lane eight, the outside lane where it is all but impossible for a runner to see any of his rivals.

GOING ALL OUT

I believed it was possible. I am just glad things went my way tonight. I'm still a bit amazed, I still have to pinch myself with what just happened.

WAYDE VAN NIEKERK, on his stunning performance in breaking Michael Johnson's 17-year-old mark of 43.18sec.

PASSING THE BATON

Can he go under 43 seconds? It is something I thought I could do, but never did. Usain Bolt will be retiring soon, this could be the next star.

MICHAEL JOHNSON, on van Niekerk taking over as athletics' standard bearer.

"I don't think any athlete wants to be in lane eight but I figured it has advantages as well as disadvantages," he said. "You have the perfect opportunity to go out as if you are in training and go as hard as you can."

Van Niekerk has been training with Bolt's team this year and the Jamaican, who has said he will retire after the World Championships next year, ran over to congratulate him after finishing the 100m.

"When he got the world record I was like, wow!" Bolt, who gave up the 400m because he did not like the training, told reporters.

"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."

Van Niekerk, who also won the world title last year, said he was just happy to be at his first Olympics alongside the likes of Bolt, whom he described as the "king of the sprints".

"I'm just really grateful that I'm part of this generation of athletics, just keeping the sport alive," he said. "I use these guys as inspiration and motivation but I've now got a chance to build my own legacy, my own journey and story. Hopefully I can inspire other South Africans and athletes around the world to go out and do their thing."

Van Niekerk watched the last Olympics at home on television but had a straightforward message for anyone who suggested his remarkable progress in the last four years was down to doping.

"I know I'm not, so what else can I say on that?" he said.

Twice Olympic 400m champion Johnson was dumbfounded by the quality of van Niekerk's run.

"Van Niekerk 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," the 48-year-old American said. "Usain Bolt will be retiring soon, this could be the next star."

When asked how fast he could run, van Niekerk's reply would have been music to the ears of the International Association of Athletics Federations, which has been unable to blow away the cloud of a doping scandal that has overshadowed the sport for the last year.

"Achieving what I just did now, I think the sky's the limit. There's no way I'm going to limit myself, I'm just going to try and better myself each and every time I race," said the South African.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2016, with the headline 'Thunderbolt strikes early'. Print Edition | Subscribe