One-lap wonder Van Niekerk targets Johnson's rare 200-400 double

AFP
Wayde van Niekerk's bid for a first world double since 1995 now turns to the 200 meters after he stormed to a comfortable victory in the 400 at the London Stadium.
AFP
AFP

Wayde Van Niekerk poses with the South African flag after winning the 400m final at the world championships in London on August 8, 2017.

Wayde van Niekerk's bid for a first world double since 1995 now turns to the 200 meters after he stormed to a comfortable victory in the 400.

After initially struggling with the cold at the London Stadium, the 25-year-old ran a solid final bend to blast to victory in 43.98 seconds with a lot to spare, and went straight into recovery ahead of Wednesday's 200 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 400 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."

Thoughts will turn straight to the 200, and a rare double.

The last athlete to claim the 200/400 double was American Michael Johnson, who achieved the feat the 1995 worlds in Gothenburg, repeating the achievement a year later at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

"It's easier said than done," said Van Niekerk, who smashed Johnson's 400 world record when winning gold in Rio and then his rarely-run 300 record in Ostrava last month.

"It's competition, it's very unpredictable.

"My body still feels very good. It took me a while to recover.

"But from endurance I go straight to speed... It's a day-by-day, step-by-step process for us athletes."

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 became 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 10 seconds over 100, 20 seconds over 200 and 44 seconds over 400, added that he was delighted his coach Anna "Tannie Ans" Botha would also receive a medal as part of a championships initiative 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 Mum as she said 'Everything achieved at home has to stay here'. So I am glad to be able to take this one home myself!"

Dominant fashion

Van Niekerk retained his world 400 meters title in dominant fashion but there was almost as much interest in the empty lane alongside him where Botswana's Isaac Makwala should have been, Reuters reported.

Steven Gardiner, 21, of the Bahamas was a clear second in 44.41 and 20-year-old world junior champion Abdalelah Haroun of Qatar blasted through at the end to snatch bronze in 44.48.

Makwala, third-fastest in the year this season, was scratched from the race earlier on Tuesday having also been withdrawn from Monday's 200 heats after vomiting before he got on to the track.

He insisted he wanted to run but IAAF officials ruled him out for public health reasons and refused him entry to the stadium amid a swathe of nanovirus and gastroenteritis cases that have affected about 30 athletes from a selection of countries.

In his absence, Van Niekerk looked an even shorter-odds favorite and duly delivered but had huge sympathy for Makwala.

"It was definitely a heartbreaking moment," he said. "I saw him just before the 200 heat and the only thing I could think of was just wrapping my arms around him and telling him he should get well soon.

"As much as we want to win gold medals, we also want to go out there and have best guys on the track with us. It’s such a massive pity. He’s a strong athlete, I’ve seen him break through a lot of challenges. So I have a lot of sympathy for him.

"I wish I could give him my medal to be honest, but this is sport. We need to go out there and fight for our opportunities and it could’ve happened to any one of us. We all have tough times, we just need to get up and fight harder."

Long-striding Gardiner, who set a national record 43.89 in the semis, could not quite reproduce that on a cold London night but looks equipped to challenge Van Niekerk in the future.

Haroun, who switched nationality from Sudan to Qatar two years ago, was last with 70 meters to go but edged past Baboloki Thebe of Botswana (fourth) and Jamaica's Nathon Allen (fifth) in the final meters.

Fred Kerley had scraped into the final as a fast loser but finished last as the United States failed to medal in the event for only the second time since the championships began in 1983.

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