Wayde van Niekerk was in tears.
Not for missing gold in the 200m by two hundredths of a second. But for what he perceived as people feeling he didn’t deserve his 400m title two days earlier, specifically his top rival, Isaac Makwala.
Van Niekerk, the South African seen as the heir apparent to Usain Bolt as track’s superstar, was upset by Turkey’s Ramil Guliyev in the world 200m final in London on Thursday. Guliyev overtook Van Niekerk on the straightaway and won in 20.09 seconds.
Van Niekerk got silver in a photo finish over Jereem Richards of Trinidad and Tobago, who clocked the same time.
Van Niekerk came thisclose to joining Michael Johnson as the only athletes to win the 200m and 400m at a single worlds. When Van Niekerk learned he took silver in the 200m behind the unknown Guliyev, he smiled, clapped and screamed in apparent joy.
But once Van Niekerk reached the media, he was closer to inconsolable. He broke down before a BBC interview, confusing any informed viewer.
“After 400m, there was quite a lot of people that felt I didn’t deserve it,” he said. “I work just as hard as every other competitor I compete against. I show everyone else respect. I think I didn’t get the respect I deserve after the 400m.”
Of anybody in any event, Van Niekerk might be the most respected athlete when it comes to the 400m.
He put on one of the greatest performances in Olympic history to win the Rio 400m out of lane 8 in 43.03 seconds, breaking Johnson’s hallowed world record. That came one year after Van Niekerk won his first world title and had to be taken off on a stretcher.
Van Niekerk then easily repeated as world champion in the 400m on Tuesday in 43.98 seconds. But many lamented that his biggest rival this season — Makwala of Botswana — was held out of the 400m final due to his medical controversy. Makwala was sixth in the 200m final, likely gassed from having raced twice Wednesday after the IAAF re-entered him.
“There’s something fishy they [the IAAF] don’t want to tell us,” Makwala told the BBC on Wednesday regarding his 400m exclusion. “Usain Bolt is out now. They want someone to be a face of IAAF.”
The IAAF said it was following recommendations from Public Health England regarding Makwala, who claimed he was not sick.
“My emotion came when Wayde van Niekerk crossed the line with 43.98 I looked at that time,” said Makwala, who ran 43.84 in a July 21 race in Monaco, where he lost to Van Niekerk. “That time was just normal time that I can do. I was in shape for more than that time. … So after I saw him crossing the line, it was like, this was my time. This was my time to take a gold medal here.”
The post-200m interview with Van Niekerk continued. The South African did not mention Makwala, leading to more confusion:
Phil Jones (BBC): It seems strange that anybody could even remotely question you when, as Olympic champion and world-record holder, they wouldn’t view you as a worthy winner. Where are you getting that sense from?
Van Niekerk: It was no secret that my finals, a lot of people felt that the results would have been other way, but I’ve proven everyone wrong today. Like I said, I’m going to prove it over and over again that I deserve where I am and I deserve what I’ve achieved.
Jones: This talk the other day of the conspiracy, the IAAF conspiracy. Did you hear that, and what were you thinking when you did?
Van Niekerk: Yeah, like I said, I feel it’s very unfair, especially, like you said, it’s not an overnight success that I achieved. I’ve been coming through the rankings the last few years as any competitor, so I really feel I’ve worked for where I am today. But it’s fine, I guess everyone’s going to be angry and people’s going to be upset the way things work out, but this is a competition. We’re all challengers. We all came out here for one thing, and that’s medals.
Later, Van Niekerk confirmed his comments were regarding Makwala.
“To be honest with you, it really did upset me a bit,” he said in a press conference. “Especially, the amount of respect I have shown each and every competitor I compete against, including Makwala. I’ve always shown him massive respect, and for him to come out and, I think, mention my name among something fishy happening in the IAAF, pointing me out as a favorite.
“I wouldn’t say [it] affected me. I just expected more from someone that I’ve been competing with for the last few years now. … For him to come out with that statement, I think it was a bit disappointing.”
Track and field is changing, especially in the sprints.
Jamaica finished worlds with one medal in the men’s and women’s 100m, 200m and 400m combined (Bolt’s 100m bronze). No Jamaicans or Americans made the men’s 200m podium.
Van Niekerk’s brilliance is the biggest draw amid this landscape. He was seen as the favorite to sweep the 400m and 200m this week, boosted by the absences of Bolt (200m), Andre De Grasse (200m) and the last two Olympic champions in the 400m.
But the 200m-400m double is daunting, as Allyson Felix can attest. Van Niekerk, who raced six times in six days, was third in his 200m semifinal Wednesday and got into the eight-man 200m final as the last qualifier.
Johnson, now a BBC analyst, noted Van Niekerk’s repeated insistence that he dislikes the 400m.
“If you hate to run the 400m, then you probably hate to train for the 400m,” Johnson said. “When you’ve got to train for the 400m and the 200m and running a bunch of rounds, then take 400m training, and it’s just exponentially harder.”
Van Niekerk later said he planned to race the 100m and 200m at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
In other events Thursday, Christian Taylor won his third world title in the triple jump, edging countryman Will Claye by five centimeters. Taylor, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic champion, was aiming for Jonathan Edwards‘ world record of 18.29 meters but mustered a best jump of 17.68 meters.
“I’m a bit disappointed, to be completely honest,” Taylor told media in London. “I want to be the best ever. Unfortunately, every time you hear the triple jump is announced, whether the championship record, world record, it’s going to be Jonathan.”
Kori Carter won the 400m hurdles out of lane 9, coming back to beat Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad in 53.07 seconds. Muhammad got silver in 53.50, followed by Jamaican Rihanna Tracey in 53.74.
Carter, 25, fell in the 2015 Worlds semifinals and finished fourth with a finish-line dive at the 2016 Olympic Trials, missing Rio by one spot.
She plans to focus on the 100m hurdles next year.
Matthew Centrowitz, the first U.S. Olympic 1500m champion in 108 years, finished last in his first-round heat in a listless effort. Kenyan Asbel Kiprop, eyeing his fourth straight world title, headlines the field for Friday’s semifinals.
World champion Dafne Schippers and Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo won their 200m semifinals to make Friday’s final. Elaine Thompson and Tori Bowie, the Olympic and world 100m champions, chose not to enter the 200m.
Caster Semenya easily won her 800m heat to make Friday’s semifinals, three days after taking bronze in the 1500m. Semenya, who has not lost an 800m in nearly two years, is joined by new American record holder Ajee’ Wilson and Olympic silver and bronze medalists Francine Niyonsaba and Margaret Wambui.
Olympic and world 10,000m champion Almaz Ayana headlined the qualifiers into Sunday’s 5000m final. She’s joined by all three Americans — Molly Huddle, Shannon Rowbury and Shelby Houlihan.
Medal favorites Maria Lasitskene of Russia and American Vashti Cunningham were among the 12 qualifiers into Saturday’s high jump final.
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*Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated no Americans or Jamaicans made the men’s 200m final. None made the podium.