BEIJING (Reuters) - The day after winning gold in a 400 meters hailed as the greatest of one-lap sprints, South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk says the world record could be the next target in his mission to “tell his story”.
The 23-year-old from Bloemfontein was carried away from the Bird’s Nest Stadium on a stretcher after running himself to the point of exhaustion in a stunning victory at the world championships on Wednesday.
He beat two past world champions, LaShawn Merritt of the United States and Grenada’s Kirani James, to become the fourth fastest man of all time over the distance.
Between them, the top trio produced the first race in history in which three men have run faster than 44 seconds. The first six finished inside 45.
Van Niekirk’s 43.48 winning time was within three-tenths of the world record set by American Michael Johnson at the Seville world championships in 1999.
The South African returned to the stadium on Thursday for his medal ceremony and was asked about his achievement and the record.
“I believe that was Michael Johnson’s story that he had to tell the world,” he said. “I have to tell my own story as an athlete. So all I am trying to do is to do my best possible.
“My goal and my journey is to try to get better with each and every race. So if that means the world record will be mine at the end of the day, I’ll just be thankful and grateful to the Lord that he gave it to me.”
Van Niekirk only turned to sprinting as a 19-year-old, having previously focused on high-jumping. He finished runner-up at both the African Games and Commonwealth Games in 2014 after a serious hamstring tear in mid-season.
He said his final had been nerve-racking.
“I knew that I had a quality athlete like LaShawn Merritt on the outside of me and I had to catch up with him as soon as possible,” he said.
“When I hit the 200-metre line, more or less, I saw that I had a slight advantage and I just started praying, and I askedGod to not let go of me.
“I just started pushing harder and harder, but the last 50 meters and my legs just started sinking in. But I just had to keep on fighting.”
Writing by Steven Downes, editing by Alan Baldwin