RIO de JANEIRO — There’s a rhythm, a cadence, when it comes to watching track and field sprints, those races that are one lap of the track or less. First, of course, the eyes naturally move to the middle of the track, lanes 3-4-5-6. These, of course, are the lanes with the fastest qualifiers. These lanes are where the favorites run. These lanes, just about every time, are where the winner emerges.
And so, everything builds outward from there. The eyes settle on that track center, where things move so fast and in an essentially ordered way. And everything that happens outside of the center the mind learns to discount it. Sure, we see runners in the far lanes make thrilling moves. “Yeah,” the brain says instinctively, “that one will fade.”
And, almost without exception, that one does fade.
So there we were Sunday night, in the edgy and brilliant minutes before Usain Bolt took the stage, and the wonderful men’s 400-meter race was about to begin. There in Lane 6 was Kirani James of Grenada, the defending Olympic champion. There in Lane 5 was American LaShawn Merritt, the 2008 Olympic champion and two-time world champion. This was going to be good. Here, of course, was where the race would be run.
And way out in Lane 8, the far outside lane, the reigning world champion, South African Wayde van Niekerk got into the blocks, just out of sight.
No runner had ever won an Olympic 400 meters from Lane 8. That shouldn’t be surprising — being in that outside lane suggests the runner is not in top form. Wayde van Niekerk’s qualifying time of 44.45 was fifth fastest among the runners, well behind James and Merritt. True, he’d pulled up at the end to save himself. Then again, so did they.
And so when the gun sounded and van Niekerk moved way ahead with an utterly stunning first 200 meters — he ran the first 200 in a ridiculous 20.5, which is faster than Jesse Owens ran it when he won 200 gold at the 1936 Olympics — the mind definitely shifted into, “He will fade” mode. James and Merritt were flying themselves, and they still had the final turn to pull even and then pull away. Yes, van Niekerk would fade.
But van Niekerk is a different kind of runner. Well, all those 400-meter superstars are a bit different, all of them push their bodies to the very edge of life. “It’s crazy,” Merritt says. “We’re warriors. We’re animals.”
At first, van Niekerk didn’t see himself that way — he expected to be a shorter-distance sprinter, a 200-meter runner, maybe even a 100-meter guy. Those guys push themselves too, of course, but not quite the same way. Those races have a little bit more glamour, a little more allure.
But then he began working with Anna Botha, a now-74-year-old great grandmother who has been coaching track and field and preaching hard work at the University of the Free State for more than 25 years. She saw in him a 400-meter runner. She saw in him the hunger to go out faster than anyone and then somehow, some way, bring it home.
Botha was right. At the world championship, the 400-meter race was more about survival than speed. The three men ran at a pace so devastating, that after the race James said, “If I ran any harder, I would have probably left on a stretch.”
That pace was good enough for James to win bronze. Meanwhile, van Niekerk DID leave on a stretcher. He won the gold medal and then was so exhausted, he sat down on the track, and he could not get up. He has consistently downplayed the incident, insisting he was fine, but the message was still sent: This guy will do anything.
So even in Lane 8 on Sunday, even after taking out the race way too fast, even as he ran blind, not knowing just how close the two Olympic champions were, van Niekerk pushed forward. What he did not know was that the three men made the final turn more or less together.
And then, the other two men broke. He pulled away to a huge lead. And then, on fumes, van Niekerk propelled himself to the finish line.
He made it to the tape in 43.03. He had broken Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old record by .15 seconds. It was awesome, in the fullest sense of that word.
A quick look at the splits between Johnson and van Niekerk show the awesomeness even more clearly:
1st 100m: van Niekerk, 10.7; Johnson, 11.1
2nd 100m: van Niekerk, 9.8, Johnson 10.1
3rd 100m: van Niekerk, 10.5, Johnson 10.4
4th 100m: van Nekerk, 12.0, Johnson 11.5
You can see just how fast van Niekerk took this thing out. It was a suicidal pace. But this seems to be the way he and Botha reinvent the 400m. It’s now: Run as fast as you can for 200 meters and then will yourself to the finish. There’s a lot of will in van Niekerk.
And the final irony is: In this once case, it might actually have HELPED van Niekerk to be in Lane 8. True, no one had ever won way out there before but because van Niekerk got out so fast, and because runners in Lane 8 start so far ahead (to make up for the difference in turns), he must have looked like the Road Runner pulling away to Merritt and James. He broke their spirits. The Olympic champions burned themselves out just trying to keep him in sight.