Wayde van Niekerk wins the 400m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)
After Wayde van Niekerk’s win at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 in 43.48, there was a prevailing feeling that Michael Johnson’s 20-year-old Olympic record, which was just one hundredth shy of that mark, might be in danger in Rio.
Instead, it was his world record* that fell.
Clocking a stunning 43.03, the South African took 0.15 of Johnson’s mark set at the 1999 IAAF World Championships and yet, for much of the race, it didn’t look like Van Niekerk was even guaranteed to win the gold medal.
Kirani James made his usual quick start over the first 200m but Grenada’s 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 James’s shoulder as they entered the second bend level with Van Niekerk, but the crucial part of the race came over the 50 metres between 250m and 300m when Van Niekerk, who in hindsight had 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, in comparison to Johnson's 31.66 in Seville, but James and Merritt were also inside the US 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-second speed.
South Africa's first athletics gold for 20 years
Van Niekerk continued to stride out and the gap between himself and the other two principle protagonists continued to grow, before getting South Africa’s first Olympic athletics gold since Josia Thugwane won the marathon in 1996.
"I believed I could get the world record," said Van Niekerk. "I've dreamed of this medal since forever. I am blessed.
"These are guys that inspired me: Usain Bolt, Michael Johnson, I learned from them, and even the guys that ran against me today, LaShawn Merritt and Kirani James, these are guys that inspired me."
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, 2014 world U20 champion Machel Cedenio of Trinidad and Tobago came through strongly over the final 50 metres to get fourth place in a national record of 44.01.
Further back, the revelation of this event in Rio, Botswana’s Karabo Sibanda improved again to 44.25 to become the third best U20 athlete ever over one lap of the rtrack 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 was eighth 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.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF
*Subject to the usual ratification procedures