When South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk won the men’s 400 metres event at the the IAAF World Championships in Beijing last year in 43.48 seconds there was a prevailing feeling that Michael Johnson’s 20-year-old Olympic record, which was exactly the same time, might be in danger in Rio. Instead, it was his world record which fell Sunday.

Clocking a stunning 43.03, the South African took 0.15 sec of Johnson’s mark set at the 1999 world championships and yet, for much of the race, it didn’t look like van Niekerk was even going to win the gold medal.

Kirani James made his usual quick start over the first 200m but the Grenada 2012 Olympic champion, in lane six, only acted as the pacemaker for his predecessor, Lashawn Merriitt, in the lane to his inside.

Merritt got up on to James’s shoulder as they entered the second bend with van Neikerk a metre back, but the crucial part of the race came over the 50 metres between 250m and 300m when van Niekerk, who in hindsight hand clearly distributed his effort far, far better, started to gain ground and entered the home straight fractionally in front of his two rivals.

Post-race video analysis showed van Niekerk passed 300m in 31.0, compared with Johnson’s 31.66 in Sevilla, but James and Merritt were also inside the American legend’s time.

With 70 metres to go, van Niekerk was able to maintain his sprint for home and there was the optical illusion of Merritt and James going backwards despite the fact that they were both operating at sub-44 speed.

Van Niekerk continued to stride out and the gap between himself and the other two principal protagonists continued to grow, before getting South Africa’s first Olympic athletics gold since Josia Thugwane won the marathon in 1996.

Behind him, Merritt looked as though he was on his way to repeating the silver medal he earned behind van Niekerk in Beijing last summer but started to tire about 30 metres from home and James just edged past him to reverse their places on the podium in the Chinese capital.

James finished in 43.76, just 0.02 away from his best, while Merritt came home in 43.85, disappointment etched across the US champion’s face.

Almost making it a record four men under 44 seconds in the same race, former world junior champion Machel Cedenio came through very strongly over the final 50 metres to get fourth place in a Trinidad and Tobago national record of 44.01.

Further back, the revelation of this event in Rio, Botswana’s Karabo Sibanda improved further to 44.25 while Bahrain’s Ali Khamis Khamis set a national record of 44.36 in sixth place. Granada’s Bralon Taplin finished seventh in 44.45 and Great Britain’s Matthew Hudson-Smith eight in 44.61,

In addition to van Niekerk’s world record, and becoming the first man to win an Olympic 400m title from lane eight, the best ever times for place from fourth to eighth were recorded.


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