He didn’t need to. It was just him against the clock.
The South African sprinter broke Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record on Sunday night in Rio de Janeiro, leaving two of the greatest one-lap runners of this era in his dust. Van Niekerk finished in 43.03 seconds – 0.15 seconds faster than Johnson ran on Aug. 26, 1999, in Seville, Spain. To think, Johnson’s mark was considered one of the almost untouchable records in track.
“I thought someone was going to catch me,” Van Niekerk explained. “I felt very alone at the end.”
The 24-year-old Van Niekerk leaned at the finish line, which he really didn’t need to do as Kirani James of Grenada and LaShawn Merritt of the Unites States weren’t even in the picture. James, the defending Olympic champion, finished with the silver and Merritt, who won gold eight years ago in Beijing, hung on for bronze as he staggered across the line.
Van Niekerk drove a wedge in the rivalry between James and Merritt at the world championships last August, when he beat them both with such a lung-searing performance that he left the track on a stretcher.
Now, he’s the fastest ever.
Instead of collapsing at the finish this time, Van Niekerk dropped to one knee and put his head in his hands. Moments later, he draped a South African flag around his shoulders and took off his spikes. As he did so, Van Niekerk pointed at the clock to make sure everyone saw his time.
Hard to miss.
On any other night, Van Niekerk would’ve drawn all the headlines. But he was competing for attention with Usain Bolt, who won his unprecedented third 100 title.
Not a big deal to the unassuming Van Niekerk.
“It’s Usain Bolt, the king of the 100 and 200,” Van Niekerk said. “I’m just grateful for being here. Just trying to build my legacy.”
Earlier this year, Van Niekerk spent time in Jamaica working with Bolt’s coach, Glen Mills. While there, he developed a relationship with Bolt, who interrupted his own victory celebration Sunday to seek out Van Niekerk.
“When he came to Jamaica, I said to him, `You’re the only person who can break the 400-meter record,'” Bolt recounted. “He’s very fast and keeps on going. To me, I wasn’t really surprised he got it.”
The glowing compliments kept on coming with Johnson, a track and field TV analyst for BBC, weighing in as well.
“Oh my God! From lane eight, a world record. He took it out so quick,” Johnson told the BBC. “I have never seen anything from 200 to 400 like that.
“That was a massacre from Wayde van Niekerk. He just put those guys away.”
They didn’t stand a chance. James thought he possibly had enough in the tank to catch Van Niekerk around the final curve. No way.
No one did. This was really a race for silver, with James easily holding off Merritt, who had to dig deep to cling to the bronze.
“He just wouldn’t slow down,” James said. “Usually, what happens is the last 100 (meters) guys start to slow down a little bit, but he just kept going.”
Merritt had a similar take.
“I did think he would fade a little bit,” Merritt said. “I honestly did. He was so far out.”
Akani Simbine, who is Van Niekerk’s roommate in the Olympic Village, knew what was coming.
“But we didn’t bring it up much because that’s just added pressure, you know,” said Simbine, who finished fifth in the 100 final. “He knows what he needs to do and we believe in what he can do.
“It was just a thing of, OK, he said he’s going to do it, break the world record, and here he did it.”
It was a stunning sprint world record by someone other than Bolt – a boost for track since the sport’s current superstar can’t be around forever.
“Van Niekerk is so young, what else can he do? Can he go under 43 seconds?” Johnson said. “It is something I thought I could do, but never did. Usain Bolt will be retiring soon. This could be the next star of the sport.”
AP Sports Writers Gerald Imray and Jenna Fryer contributed.