South Africa’s speed merchant eyes rare double Van Niekerk’s win in 400 sets stage for repeat in 200
LONDON — Wayde van Niekerk’s bid for a first world sprint double since 1995 now turns to the 200m after he stormed to a comfortable victory in the 400m on Tuesday.
After initially struggling with the cold, the 25-year-old South African ran a solid final bend to blast to victory in 43.98sec with a lot to spare, and went straight into recovery mode ahead of Wednesday’s 200m semifinals, with the final on Thursday.
“It was quite freezing and I struggled to get myself warmed up and ready,” said van Niekerk, who came into the 400m as defending world and Olympic champion.
“I was doubting my momentum. In the last 150 meters I tried putting in an extra gear, but I couldn’t catch my stride until my last few meters. I just allowed the race to go through to the finish line.”
His thoughts immediately turned to the 200m, and a rare double.
The last athlete to claim the 200/400m double was Michael Johnson of the US, who achieved the feat at the 1995 worlds in Gothenburg and repeated it a year later at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
“It’s easier said than done,” said Van Niekerk, who smashed Johnson’s 400m world record en route to winning gold in Rio and then set the record in the rarely run 300m in Ostrava last month.
“It’s competition, it’s very unpredictable,” he said. “My body still feels very good. I go straight to speed.”
Van Niekerk reiterated that every season threw up new challenges.
“I know it’s never going to be a walk in the park,” he said. “I’m just so grateful to say I came through with a gold medal.
“Every year has its new challenges, and every year it gets tough.
“I don’t think it ever gets easier. Right after Rio I found out I had a back injury, and this entire season I have been struggling to find fitness, but at the same time my times have been getting better, especially in the short sprints.”
Van Niekerk, the first athlete to break 10sec over 100m, 20sec over 200m and 44sec over 400m, said he was delighted his coach Anna Botha would also receive a medal as part of a new initiative at the worlds to reward coaches.
“Everyone knows the superstar coach I have,” he said of the 74-year-old great-grandmother who oversees the hottest property in world athletics.
“It’s actually a massive honor for me to be able to reach these great heights with her.
“She has had to wait a long time — with the third gold, she gets to take one home with her, too.
“Unfortunately my two previous medals had to go to my mom, as she said ‘Everything achieved at home has to stay here’.
“So I am very grateful to be able to take this one home myself !”
Meanwhile, the stomach virus that hit a number of athletes at the worlds earlier in the week morphed into a fullfledged mess a few hours before the final, when video surfaced of Isaac Makwala of Botswana — who has pushed Van Niekerk in races all season — being escorted away from the athletes’ entrance to the stadium.
Makwala insisted he felt fine, but he vomited before Monday’s heats for his other race, the 200m, and the IAAF said doctors checked him, determined he had norovirus and, per the recommendation of health regulators in Britain, told him he had to stay off the premises for 48 hours.
“I came here for a medal,” a healthy looking Makwala said in an interview with BBC Sports.
“Some people are trying to force me to withdraw. I’m OK to run, but somebody’s saying I can’t run. It’s a bad thing.”
The IAAF put out its own statement defending the decision, saying it “is very sorry that the hard work and talent of Isaac Makwala won’t be on display tonight but we have to think of the welfare of all athletes.”
Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa crosses the finish line in the 400m final in London on Tuesday.