Michael Johnson is no longer the 400-meter race world record holder. That title has just been grabbed from him by South African sprinter Wayde van Niekerk in the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Van Niekerk is said to be a friend of Oscar Pistorius, who, known for his moniker the Blade Runner, defied his disability to become one of the 4oo-meter race’s brightest stars the world has known.
Aware of his record-breaking power and speed, Pistorius had his eyes set for the Olympic gold in Rio after losing his chance in the semi-finals in London in 2012. Unfortunately, his plan would not translate into reality. He squandered it. He is now serving his six-year term for a criminal offense behind bars, “holed up in the notorious Kgosi Mampuru prison in Pretoria, where some of the country’s worst criminals are incarcerated,” according to sports journalist Martin Rogers of USA Today.
Even so, Pistorius has mysteriously made his way into van Niekerk’s nerve, who was inspired by him, hoping that the fallen champion friend and former colleague will have his days again to reclaim his lost glory in the track.
Did the South African van Niekerk know that he was bound to beat the American Michael Johnson’s world record Sunday night in Rio?
All that van Niekerk had in mind, or so it seemed, on his way to the men’s 400-meter dash final was Pistorious.
“He was an inspiration to us all,” van Niekerk said, as quoted by Rogers. “It’s one of the guys who opened the doors for us. What happens in your personal life does not concern me, I can not speak for him.”
“But he inspired a generation to run, he gave me a reason to want to run for my country,” van Niekerk continued. “Whatever happens in his life, I wish him all the best.”
However, that night, according to Rogers, was van Niekerk’s “night of glory, the kind of glory Pistorius once dreamed of. Now, his name is mentioned only as a cautionary tale.”
Not only did van Niekerk break Michael Johnson’s 43.18 second world record with his stunning 43.03 seconds in 400-meter track in Rio. As Matt Norlander of CBS Sports noted, he was also “the first person ever to win a world or Olympic 400-meter race from lane 8.”
Perhaps nobody could aptly describe what happened right there and then The Guardian did.
“It looked… as if [van Niekerk] had gone off stupidly fast through the first 200m, and the expectation was that Kirani James, the defending champion from Grenada, and LaShawn Merritt of the United States – who fought like pitbulls in the middle lanes – would haul Van Niekerk in through the bends.
“It didn’t happen. The South African in fact went faster in the second half of the race, slingshotting into the home straight in a blur of limbs. His winning margin against one of the fastest 400m fields ever assembled verged on the ridiculous. It was, as [Michael Johnson] said on television commentary, ‘a massacre.'”
The news made headlines in the now post-Apartheid South Africa, where van Niekerk was hailed like a hero.
“Wayde is actually the first South African sprinter to win an Olympic gold since Bevil Rudd, also in the 400, at Antwerp 1920,” said the Johannesburg-based news site Times Live.
In fact, it was not the first time van Niekerk made history for his country. Last year in Beijing, he also became “South Africa’s first world sprint champion as he stormed around the one-lap race in 43.48 seconds, becoming the fourth-fastest athlete in the event and the quickest non-American athlete,” Times Live reported.
Inspired by Pistorius in Rio de Janeiro (however unlikely that might sound), there was no question for van Niekerk that he was destined to steal from Michael Johnson the 400-meter race world record that the American held for 17 long years.
“I believed I could get the world record. I’ve dreamed of this medal forever,” said van Niekerk, who was quoted by The Guardian. “I am blessed.”
About which the American contender LeShawn Merritt could not help by say, “I knew the time was going to be fast, [but] I didn’t think it was going to be 43.0 fast. It is what it is. You take it. He ran his heart out.”
[Photo by Natacha Pisarenko/AP Images]