Rio 2016: Wayde Van Niekerk smashes Michael Johnson's World Record en route to 400 meter title

Wayde Van Niekerk won the 400 meters in a World Record time of 43.03 at the Rio Olympics. The South African broke Michael Johnson's 17-year old World Record, set back at the 1999 IAAF World Championships in Seville. Defending Olympic champion Kirani James took the silver while 2008 Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt won the bronze.

James sets the early pace, Merritt follows as they try to track down Van Niekerk

James made his typical quick start over the first 200m but running out of lane six, only acted as the pace setter for Merriitt who was 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 key part of the race came between 250m and 300m when Van Niekerk started to gain ground and entered the home straight just in front of his two rivals. 

With 70 meters to go, Van Niekerk was able to maintain his sprint for home and despite the fact that they were both operating at sub 44 second speed, it appeared at times as if James and Merritt were both going backwards, a consequence of Van Niekerk's now legendary run. 

Wayde Van Niekerk holding off Kirani James and LaShawn Merritt to win the 400 meters in Rio/Photo Source: Getty Images
Wayde Van Niekerk holding off Kirani James and LaShawn Merritt to win the 400 meters in Rio/Photo Source: Getty Images

Van Niekerk cruises to the finish in world record time, talks about his win and other things after the race

Van Niekerk continued to widen the gap between himself and James and Merritt before getting South Africa’s first Olympic athletics gold since Josia Thugwane won the marathon in 1996. James finished in 43.76, just 0.02 away from his best, while Merritt came home in 43.85. 

Afterwards, Van Niekerk said he thought all along Johnson's record was in reach for him: "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." 

Following the race, Van Niekerk went more-in depth about his relationship with Bolt: "I was over there (Jamaica) for about two weeks training," said van Niekerk. "He's been such a huge rock, inspiring me as an athlete. He told me back in Jamaica that 'you will break the world record.' And he came to me after (tonight) and said 'I told you you can do it.' " He also thought someone would be on his trail, but was surprised to see no one around him: "Yeah, I thought someone was going to catch me, because I felt very alone and I was like 'what's going on, what's going on?," he said. "It gave me so much motivation to keep on pushing, keep on pushing, and as I got to the finish line I just dove for the finish line and right after that I said 'don't sit, don't sit', so I went on my knees and thanked the Lord and right after that I went to my family and thanked everyone for tonight."