Hopefully history will judge Wayde more kindly than Johnson's brain fart did
History can be cruel. Wayde van Niekerk’s bid for a rare 400m-200m double in London was denied by a man achieving even greater antiquity.
It had been 22 years since American legend Michael Johnson became the only person to scoop that double at a world championships‚ back in 1995 when Van Niekerk was three years old.
The South African star‚ having broken Johnson’s 400m world record at the Olympics last year as well as his 300m world best in June‚ came as close as damnit to matching Johnson’s double‚ falling short by just two-hundredths of a second in the 200m on Thursday night.
Ahead of him Ramil Guliyev claimed Turkey’s first-ever gold medal since the track and field world championships started in its current form in 1983‚ or seven years before Guliyev was born.
Guliyev's nation of birth‚ Azerbaijan‚ for which he competed until deciding to switch allegiance in 2011‚ has never won a medal of any colour.
Had Van Niekerk been successful in his quest‚ the details of his double would have come under scrutiny and compared to Johnson’s.
Van Niekerk competed over six straight days in the 400m heats‚ 400m semifinals‚ 200m heats‚ 400m final‚ 200m semifinals and 200m final.
Johnson raced over seven days‚ with one rest day. Back then‚ however‚ the sprinters had four rounds of competition‚ so he went 400m heats‚ 400m quarterfinals‚ 400m semifinals‚ rest day‚ 400m final‚ 200m heats and quarterfinals‚ 200m semifinals and final.
Van Niekerk’s personal bests in the two events are 43.03sec and 19.84‚ although his times in London were 43.98 and 20.11; Johnson’s winning times were 43.39 and 19.79.
Had Van Niekerk time-travelled to 1995 and taken Johnson’s place in the finals of both races‚ his London times would have been good enough for gold‚ faster than the silver medallists Butch Reynolds and Frankie Fredericks‚ both the second-fastest men over those distances of all time in those days.
Johnson was a TV commentator at these championships‚ and he went on the attack over the absence of Botswana star Isaac Makwala from the 400m‚ effectively painting Van Niekerk in a tainted light he didn't deserve.
Makwala was forced out of the final after he fell ill with what organisers believed to be a case of the infectious norovirus‚ which causes nausea and diarrhoea‚ but more seriously it reportedly leads to 50‚000 child deaths globally every year.
It's a health issue and Makwala was placed under quarantine‚ which he broke to try get into the stadium for the 400m final. He was refused entry.
Johnson had what can best be described as a brain fart when he spawned a conspiracy that the world governing body‚ the IAAF‚ was doing this to protect Van Niekerk‚ Usain Bolt’s anointed successor.
Makwala made similar pronouncements‚ claiming the 400m was his better event and that he would have won medal.
Johnson is a smart man‚ but he can get things horribly wrong‚ like when he predicted Bolt was not sufficiently technically proficient to break his 200m world record at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Bolt beat it by two-hundredths of a second.
Any athletics brain will tell you Makwala was never going to be a major factor for Van Niekerk.
A medal‚ possibly. Gold‚ no.
Just look at his history. Makwala‚ who turns 31 next month‚ is not a championship runner‚ having proven he is incapable of going through rounds and delivering in finals‚ with the exception of the African championships.
He went into the last world championships in Beijing in 2015 with a 43.72 world lead‚ and even clocked the fastest time in the semifinals. In the final he ended fifth‚ more than a second behind the victorious Van Niekerk.
At his only other world championships at Berlin 2009‚ and at the London 2012 Olympics‚ he didn’t get past the heats. At the Rio Games last year he didn’t get progress beyond the semifinals.
In their only 400m tussle this year‚ in Monaco last month‚ Van Niekerk toyed with Makwala before hauling him in on the home straight for a comfortable win.
This year Makwala came to London with the world’s fastest 200m time and he and Jereem Richards of Trinidad and Tobago shared the second best time in the semifinals.
In the final he ended sixth while Richards took the bronze; it was business as usual.
Short of streakers storming the track to tackle the rivals around him‚ Makwala was never going to win the 400m or the 200m.
If the IAAF really wanted to protect Van Niekerk‚ it should have focused on his “weaker” event‚ the 200m.
In that case it would have targeted the most consistent performer in the 200m final field‚ and that man was the sole survivor of the 200m finals from Beijing 2015 and Rio 2016 — Guliyev himself.
Van Niekerk should have laughed off the ramblings of Johnson and Makwala for the ludicrous rubbish that it was‚ but instead he broke down in tears during a trackside TV interview over what he called a lack of respect.
“That really did upset me a bit‚” he admitted later.
“Especially the amount of respect I’ve shown each and every competitor I compete against‚ including Makwala‚ and for him to come out and mention my name among something fishy happening in the IAAF … I think I definitely deserve way more respect from my competitors.”
Asked what he thought of Johnson’s theory‚ Van Niekerk simply said: “I guess that’s unlucky for him then.”
It’s a pity Van Niekerk’s double bid had to end in this acrimony and the tears.
Some people might think he was being a poor loser.
He’s admitted he doesn’t like losing‚ but he is a gracious loser‚ a great athlete and a fierce competitor.
Hopefully Van Niekerk will be judged a little more kindly by history than he was by Johnson and Makwala.