Throughout the preliminary rounds of the men’s 400m, three runners emerged as the clear medal favorites. Kirani James, after cruising through the first round and beating LaShawn Merritt in the semifinal, was probably considered the favorite for gold. Merritt stayed close enough to James to stay in the gold conversation. Last year’s world championship gold medalist Wayde Van Niekerk eased through his semifinal heat, which made it difficult to gauge exactly how much he had in the tank for a final.
The answer, it turns out, was a lot. Stuck with a lane eight assignment in the final, Van Niekerk had to run blind the entire time. Lane eight is typically regarded as a non-optimal lane to run from because, unless you’re getting seriously run down, you don’t get to see any of your competitors until you’re nearly 300m into the race. Even with that outside position, the South African made history.
With a 43.03 time, Van Niekerk beat Michael Johnson’s 17-year old 400m world record by .15 seconds, not a trivial margin for such a short event. Unlike his world championship win last summer—after which he needed to be stretchered off the track—Van Niekerk looked controlled in this world record performance.
Following Van Niekerk was a tight race between Kirani James and LaShawn Merritt. James got silver with a season best of 43.76 and Merritt followed, also with a season-best, in 43.85. It was the first 400m race in history that featured three runners under 44 seconds.