Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa won a scintillating men’s 400m final in the Bird’s Nest on Wednesday night, leading three men under 44 seconds – the first time this has ever happened.
In a neat bit of symmetry, the men’s 400m at these World Championships started and finished with the greatest round in history.
Rusheen McDonald and Youssef Al-Masrahi started things off by going sub-44 seconds in the heats on Sunday morning, leading off the greatest first round in the history of men’s one-lap racing.
Now Van Niekerk has finished it with a 43.48 victory, taking his country’s first global victory at 400m since Bevil Rudd at the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games.
Defending champion LaShawn Merritt ran 43.65, a personal best, in second place and Olympic champion Kirani James 43.78 for third. It is the first time three men have ever gone under 44 seconds in one race.
Van Niekerk, who is undefeated at 400m and 200m this year, becomes the fourth-fastest man in history. This does not even net him a championship record – Michael Johnson holds that with the world record 43.18 he ran to win in Seville in 1999 – but elevated him to fourth on the world all-time list behind Johnson, Butch Reynolds (43.29 in Zurich in 1988) and Jeremy Wariner (43.45 in winning the world title in Osaka in 2007).
More superlatives, as if they are needed. Olympic silver medallist Luguelin Santos, fourth in a Dominican Republic record of 44.11, has the unwanted distinction of becoming the fastest non-medal winner in history at any championships.
And tonight's final was the first occasion on which four sub-44 men – the three medallists, plus Masrahi – have met in the same race.
Van Niekerk succeeds in winning a global 400m title for Africa where Ivory Coast's Gabriel Tiacoh (silver medal at the 1984 Olympic Games), Kenya's Samson Kitur (bronze at the 1992 Olympics and 1993 World Championships) and Uganda's Davis Kamoga (bronze at the 1996 Olympics and silver at the 1997 World Championships) all failed.
His performance was a world lead and took the African record he held for 24 hours after beating James in the Paris IAAF Diamond League meeting back from Isaac Makwala, who ran 43.72 a day later. Makwala finished fifth here in 44.63.
But this was above all a super race. The athletes were drawn in lanes two to nine, leaving the inside lane free.
Van Niekerk, fifth from the inside between James and Santos, and Merritt, with only Makwala to his outside, were out fastest. Makwala was also away quickly in the outside lane and these three led James and Santos off the final bend.
James started to move down the final straight, but could not take any significant ground out of Van Niekerk and Merritt – hardly surprising given the pace they were running.
That was how it ended. Van Niekerk striding to the line quick and unchallenged, Merritt running his best race of the season when it mattered most. James did, too, but it was not good enough against two opponents running the fastest times of their lives.
Three of the first four ran lifetime bests, James was within four hundredths of a second of his. This, almost literally, was the race of a lifetime, the sparkling crown on three rounds of the best one-lap running we are ever likely to see.
Len Johnson for the IAAF