When he crossed the line 30.81 seconds after the gun sounded the start of last night’s 300m contest in Ostrava's Golden Spike, Wayde van Neikerk once again stepped knee deep into uncharted waters.
With his performance, he took down two of the biggest names in the history of sprinting: Michael Johnson, whose 17-year-old 30.85 world best he had just broken, and Usain Bolt, the meeting record-holder in the event and until last night the second best ever over the rarely run distance.
It was a powerful confident display. Running in lane five, Van Niekerk had already made up the stagger before reaching the middle of the bend. From there he forged on, surging off the turn and running through the line in a fashion more closely resembling a 200m sprinter than a 400m world record-holder.
It was also the sort of performance that invites not only comparison with the likes of Johnson and Bolt, but also the inevitable and ongoing conjecture that surrounds the sport now as it searches for a 'successor' to the Jamaican who has been the face of athletics for the past decade. For what it’s worth, Van Niekerk apparently already has Bolt’s vote.
“He’s shown he’s ready for the challenge,” Bolt said after his race in Ostrava. “He’s definitely on the right track.”
But the affable 24-year-old South African, who already has Olympic and world 400m titles to his name, insists it’s too early for that kind of talk. He is, after all, just getting started.
“They’re all baby steps to the future so we’re just taking it all step by step,” Van Niekerk said, clearly pleased about adding another global standard to his growing collection.
“(The 300m world best) is another stepping stone in my career. It’s another moment for me to go out there and prove myself. I’m really pleased that things went my way. You were tweeting out my 'ridiculous' quote and I’m glad I went out there and put on my ‘ridiculous’ show.
“Now I can say that I officially have the 400 and 300 record. It’s out there, it’s mine. It’s something I can claim and be proud about. But being 24 years old means that I have so much more to do in my career. I’ve got so much more to achieve.”
.@WaydeDreamer is now the first man in history to go:— IAAF (@iaaforg) June 28, 2017
sub-10 for 100m
sub-20 for 200m
sub-31 for 300m
sub-44 for 400m
With 9.94 and 19.84 PBs already on his scorecard this season prior to his arrival in Ostrava, a successful assault on Johnson’s world best drifted on an air of inevitability.
“It was mentioned quite a lot so it was on my mind,” he said. “You can’t put a blind eye to it. But it did bring a bit of nerves.” Now, he said, with a wide smile, “knowing that the 400 and 300 records are mine, people won’t be nagging me all the time.”
“Before the race I was quite nervous,” he continued. “My nerves got to me a bit. But afterwards I just allowed myself to relax and let the adrenaline smooth down a little bit. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be but it just shows that my strength as a 300 and 400-metre athlete is also improving. But at the same time I’m really excited to see what I can do in the 400.”
For that, he and the world will have to wait until the Athletissima in Lausanne, the IAAF Diamond League meeting on 6 July. In the meantime, more hard work awaits behind the scenes.
London double looms – ‘six days of pure competition’
While he clearly enjoyed the moment in Ostrava, Van Niekerk’s attention turned quickly to the larger immediate task at hand, his planned 200/400m double at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 where he hopes to emulate Michael Johnson’s historic achievements from the 1995 World Championships and 1996 Olympic Games.
“This year's been a quite a difficult year for me,” he said on Tuesday, prior to yesterday’s race. “I've sought quite a bit of motivation and had quite a lot of niggles. So I'm not too confident when it comes to the rounds but I'm sure if I leave it all in coach (Anna Botha)'s hands, I trust that coach will make me ready for it.
“We've still got another month to train and put in that hard work,” he continued. “Other than that, I think that the double itself is going to be double the work if not triple. Six days of pure competition.”
After his Ostrava dash into the record books, he sounded, acted and appeared much more relaxed than the reserved Van Niekerk that spoke with media the previous day but readily admitted that there was lots of work to be done.
“I think we’re going to introduce some tough workouts now, being that it’s the last month before the World Championships,” he said.
“I have been struggling with quite a lot of back and hamstring problems so that did delay a lot of work. It’s been there and irritating me for the past three or four years now and I’ve (still) been running world records and personal bests. So it’s really just about working through it and just accepting that the irritation will be there and the pain will be there, but that there’s no risk of an injury.
"It’s time for me to just suck up the pain and do my best.”
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF