Wayde van Niekerk wins the 400m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)
It was the greatest moment in Wayde van Niekerk’s life, but he can’t even remember it.
On Sunday night in Rio, the 24-year-old unleashed one of the most unforgettable performances in Olympic history, though when he tried to think back on the race, he comes up blank.
“I’d love to give you the long testimony,” said Van Niekerk, “but I don’t remember a thing. I don’t even think I was in that race; that’s how unreal it was.”
The South African had entered the race as one of three principal title contenders alongside Kirani James and LaShawn Merritt, but he blitzed his rivals – and Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record of 43.18 – by powering around the track in 43.03.
No one saw it coming, apart, that is, from the man most people had come to the Olympic Stadium to see on Sunday night.
It was 25 minutes before the start of the men’s 100m final, and Usain Bolt was in the call room, shooting the breeze with some of his rivals about who would win the 400m.
“I said: ‘Wayde is definitely going to win',” said Bolt. “The way he runs, from lane eight, it’s going to be brilliant.”
Bolt had more than just a passing interest in the race, for Van Niekerk had trained alongside him in Jamaica for a fortnight on the final countdown to the Games, a trip arranged by the South African’s coach, Anna Sophia Botha.
“In Jamaica, me and my coach [Glen Mills] had a conversation,” said Bolt. “He said: ‘Wayde is the only guy other than you who can break the 400m world record because he’s got strength, he’s got speed'.”
Indeed Van Niekerk is still the only man in history to run below 10 seconds for 100m, 20 seconds for 200m and 44 seconds for 400m, a range of speed that demonstrates a freakish genetic composition.
It takes a lot to upstage Bolt – the Jamaican powered to his third successive Olympic 100m title last night – but then again Van Niekerk has made a habit of upsetting the odds.
After being drawn in lane eight, few believed the South African would dominate the field as he did at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing last year, and even he set a modest goal entering the race.
“I don’t think any athlete wants to be in lane eight,” he said, “but when you have it, you just embrace it.”
In truth, the record was never on his mind; all Van Niekerk wanted was a medal, to emerge from the blocks like a bat out of hell and hope that by the time he turned for home, no one would have moved into his peripheral vision.
“I was blind all the way,” said Van Niekerk. “At the finish line I was expecting one of them to catch me.”
They never did.
Van Niekerk turned for home with a one-metre advantage over James and Merritt, and such was his exuberance over the opening half of the race – he passed 200 metres in 20.5 and 300 metres in 31.0 – his rivals were certain he would soon fall in a hole.
“He just kept going,” said James, who finished second in 43.76.
“He took off,” said Merritt, who was third in 43.85. “I thought he would fade, but he was so far out there.”
Van Niekerk crossed the line in splendid isolation, becoming the first man to win the Olympic 400m from an outside lane since Eric Liddell in 1928, and even that was from lane six.
“To be honest, the world record was never part of it,” said Van Niekerk. “I said go out there and do your best and that’s all I did, my best.”
It may have looked a facile victory, but no Olympic gold is won without overcoming an ample dose of adversity.
In both his heat and semi-final, Van Niekerk felt a twinge in his right hamstring at 200 metres, which led to him easing off the throttle in both races. Heading into the final, he had two long strips of tape on his leg, and one big doubt in his mind about whether his hamstring would hold up for 43 pulverising seconds of sprinting.
“It was mentally challenging,” he said. “When I hit 200m in the final I expected that feeling again, but it never came. I thought to myself: ‘don’t lose this opportunity, push harder and harder'.”
Afterwards, Van Niekerk was still struggling to come to terms with surpassing not just the two men either side of him on the medal rostrum, but also the man considered the greatest 400m runner in history.
“Michael Johnson always inspired me as a youngster,” he said. “Watching Kirani and LaShawn too in recent years has pushed me to where I am now.”
Another man who inspired him was quick to offer his congratulations shortly after the race, that is once the tall Jamaican got the business of winning the 100m out of the way.
“Bolt told me in Jamaica that you will break the world record,” said Van Niekerk. “After the race he came to me and said: ‘I told you'.”
Late on Monday night, Van Niekerk was asked whether he considered it unfair that Bolt so often grabbed the limelight ahead of athletes like him, especially on occasions such as this where he had shone brightest.
“Not at all,” said Van Niekerk. “What Bolt has achieved speaks for itself. He is the king of the 100m and 200m.”
Van Niekerk, of course, now rules the 400m in an equally peerless fashion, even if he’s far too modest to ever say such a thing.
It’s a reign that may last for some time.
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF