Running an extraordinary race in lane eight, the 24-year-old world champion got off to a flier and streaked clear on the back straight before upping his pace even further to better American Johnson’s 1999 mark of 43.18 seconds. 2012 Olympic champion Kirani James of Grenada won silver in 43.76, with 2008 champion LaShawn Merritt of the USA third in 43.85, the first time the top three had run under 44 seconds in the one-lap Olympic final.
“I believed I could get the world record,” said the victorious 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, Kirani James: these are guys that inspired me.”
The South African took the line a full five metres ahead of the field and held his hands to his head in disbelief before being embraced by the Grenadian, who later said: “I’m happy to be part of a race that made history. We have put this sport on a pedestal.” Giving his reaction to an era-defining race, bronze medallist Merritt said: “It was a crazy race, a great moment in history. The world record was broken, the best man won.”
Van Niekerk marked himself as the leading contender for Rio 2016 when he led home Merritt and James with an exceptional run to win gold at last year’s IAAF World Championships in Beijing, where the top three also beat the 44-second mark. This year, he became the first athlete to run the 100m in under 10 seconds, the 200m under 20 and 400m in under 44, before deciding to concentrate on the longest distance in Brazil.
“Achieving what I just did now, I think the sky's the limit. There’s no way I'm going to limit myself, I'm just going to try and better myself each and every time I race,” added Van Niekerk, who will now look to end Bolt’s reign in the 200m, the heats of which start on 16 August.