Wayde van Niekerk wins 400m final in 43.03, breaks 17-year-old record

Van Niekerk impressive in shattering record (1:02)

T.J. Quinn recaps Wayde van Niekerk's performance in winning the 400m final from Lane 8 in world record time. (1:02)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Exploding out of the blocks in Lane 8, Wayde van Niekerk didn't see another runner in the entire Olympic 400-meter final.

He didn't need to. It was just him against the clock.

The South African sprinter broke Michael Johnson's 17-year-old world record on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, leaving two of the greatest one-lap runners of this era in his dust. Van Niekerk finished in 43.03 seconds -- 0.15 seconds faster than Johnson ran on Aug. 26, 1999, at the world championships in Seville, Spain. Johnson's mark was considered one of the almost untouchable records in track.

"I was running blind all the way," Van Niekerk said. "I thought someone was going to catch me -- what's going on, what's going on -- and it gave me motivation to keep on pushing."

Van Niekerk, 24, became the first South African since 1928 to win an Olympic gold medal on the track, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

He leaned at the finish line, which he really didn't need to do, as Kirani James (43.76) of Grenada and LaShawn Merritt (43.85) of the United States weren't even in the picture. James, the defending Olympic champion, finished with the silver, and Merritt, who won gold eight years ago in Beijing, hung on for bronze as he staggered across the line.

Van Niekerk drove a wedge in the rivalry between James and Merritt at the world championships last August, when he beat both with such a lung-searing performance that he left the track on a stretcher.

Now he's the fastest ever. This time, instead of collapsing at the finish, Van Niekerk dropped to one knee and put his head in his hands. Moments later, he draped the multicolored South African flag around his shoulders and took off his spikes. As he did so, Van Niekerk pointed at the clock to make sure everyone saw his time. It was hard to miss.

Even Usain Bolt thought so. He sought out Van Niekerk and congratulated him moments after winning an unprecedented third 100-meter title. The compliments kept on coming with Johnson, a track and field analyst for BBC, weighing in as well.

"Oh my God! From Lane 8, a world record. He took it out so quick," Johnson told the BBC. "I have never seen anything from 200 to 400 like that. That was a massacre from Wayde van Niekerk. He just put those guys away."

The competition didn't stand a chance. James thought he possibly had enough in the tank to catch Van Niekerk around the final curve. No one did. This was really a race for silver, with James easily holding off Merritt, who had to dig deep to cling to bronze.

"He just wouldn't slow down," James said. "Usually, what happens is the last 100, guys start to slow down a little bit, but he just kept going. When you keep going like that, obviously a record is going to fall."

Akani Simbine, Van Niekerk's roommate in the Olympic Village, said his teammate was targeting the record.

"But we didn't bring it up much because that's just added pressure, you know," said Simbine, who finished fifth in the 100 final. "He knows what he needs to do, and we believe in what he can do.

"It was just a thing of, OK, he said he's going to do it, break the world record, and here he did it."

A world record was precisely what the sport needed in the wake of a Russian doping scandal that grabbed the headlines before the Olympics. A fast, fresh face was also a boost because Bolt can't be around forever.

"Van Niekerk is so young, what else can he do? Can he go under 43 seconds?" Johnson said. "It is something I thought I could do but never did. Usain Bolt will be retiring soon. This could be the next star of the sport."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.