Team South Africa bagged their first gold medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro 2016, courtesy of Bloemfontein’s very own Wayde van Niekerk.
The 400m world sprint champion, Van Niekerk, smashed Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record early on Monday morning to leave the defending champion, Kirani James, and the USA’s LaShawn Merritt trailing in his wake. Van Niekerk beat the pair in the final by 0.73 seconds to win his first ever Olympic title and in the process also win South Africa’s first gold medal on the track in 20 years. The last gold medal before Van Niekerk was won by the marathon athlete, Josia Thugwane, at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Georgia.
The Grey College old boy crossed the finish line in a staggering 43.03 seconds as he shaved 0.15 seconds off the record set by the American sprinting great in 1999. On that occasion, Johnson set the record at altitude at the Pilditch Stadium in Pretoria. Even more remarkable is the fact that Van Niekerk did it in the 8th lane and this is also the first time ever a sprinter has won a gold in the outside lane. The last time a South African won the 400m sprint at the Olympics was 96 years ago when Bevil Rudd won the event at the 1920 London Games in a time of 49.6 seconds.
Johnson happened to be commenting during the final for the BBC and he was almost left speechless as his record tumbled. “It is amazing. That was a massacre by Van Niekerk. This young man has done something truly special. He could go under 43 seconds – I tried and failed. Being out in lane eight helped him, he was away from James and Merritt. He was running a time-trial.
“That was some style he broke it in,” Johnson added about Van Niekerk, who made sprint history by becoming the first athlete to dip under benchmark times in the 100, 200 and 400m earlier in the year. Ever humble, Van Niekerk said straight after the race that he couldn’t comment on the race as he didn’t remember much: “I don’t remember a thing and I will literally have to go and watch the race for me to tell you about it.
“I’m not normally speechless when it comes to interviews, but I think I still need to let it sink in. I don’t even think I was in that race, that’s how unreal it feels.”
Straight after Van Niekerk’s feat, the world sprinting great, Usain Bolt, was in action and became the first athlete with three consecutive golds in the men’s 100m sprint. The Jamaican legend took time from a post-race interview to go over and congratulate the soft-spoken Bloemfontein sprinter on his world record effort. – MORGAN PIEK