Wayde van Niekerk’s lips curled into a shy smile as he watched a video of himself take his place in outside lane eight in the final of the 400m at the Olympic Games in Rio last month.
A gathered crowd of onlookers at a media event held in Midrand to welcome Van Niekerk back home to SA burst into spontaneous applause when the 24-year-old athlete obliterated Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old 400m world record and won gold in devastating fashion at the Rio Games.
The South African crossed the finish line in a breathtaking 43:03 seconds — Johnson’s old mark was 43:18 seconds — ahead of silver medalist Kirani James and bronze medalist LaShawn Merritt.
The race may have taken place almost a month ago but those breathtaking images still sent chills down the spine‚ even to Van Niekerk himself.
The appreciative crowd of onlookers understood that they were in the presence of greatness and let Van Niekerk know exactly how they felt about him when he eventually took to the podium to address them.
They cheered wildly and if there was ever any doubt that life will never be the same again for Van Niekerk‚ that crowded auditorium in Midrand laid that flickering moment of uncertainty to rest.
Van Niekerk said breaking the world record took a while to sink in and it wasn’t until moments after crossing the finish line that he finally allowed himself to take a peak at the scoreboard.
His name and his 43:03 seconds world record mark flashed back at him‚ but he still could not believe it.
‘‘Obviously I went on my knees (after the race) and thanked the Lord for the opportunity……..in the back of my mind I saw the (world record on the scoreboard) but you can’t really accept it yet‚” he said.
‘‘It does not make sense to you‚ I was just happy that I got the gold medal.”
Van Niekerk said there are days when he does not believe what he achieved on that famous night on August 15 in Rio and when he sees his name listed next to the world record at athletics events‚ he momentarily forgets he is the Van Niekerk the record books are referring to.
“The world record still does not sink in. I mean I have watched a few Diamond League races after the Olympics and I see my name (at the bottom of the screen) with the world record but I always think that is not me.”