In his first major 400m since Rio, Wayde Van Niekerk showed promise that he could challenge his world record at the world championships next month.
The South African won in 43.62 seconds in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Thursday, easing up in the final few strides in the fastest time in the world since his 43.03 world record at the Olympics.
“I do have a love-hate relationship with the 400m,” Van Niekerk said, according to the IAAF. “Finishing a 400m is always painful but, this time around, I am actually pleasantly surprised about how I digest the lactic acid.”
It’s Van Niekerk’s third-fastest time ever — trailing only Rio and his 2015 World title. Nobody else has run that fast since 2007. Only Michael Johnson‘s 43.44 from the 1996 Olympic Trials was faster this early in a year.
Van Niekerk is the clear favorite for worlds in London, where the men’s 400m final is Aug. 8 and he plans to race the 200m later in the meet. Upstart American Fred Kerley is the only other man to break 44 seconds this year, clocking 43.70 at an NCAA meet on May 26.
Van Niekerk has already set personal bests in the 100m, 200m and 300m this year.
Also Thursday, Justin Gatlin won the 100m in 9.96 seconds, his third straight race between 9.95 and 9.98 seconds. However, the 35-year-old Gatlin has slowed this year, coming off a leg injury. He ran 9.80 and 9.75 in Lausanne in 2014 and 2015.
“I’m not at my A-game at the moment,” Gatlin said, according to the IAAF. “That shows I am human. … And I’ve shown that even with setbacks in my preparation, I am still a competitor. I have been consistent under 10 [seconds], and that is important.”
Gatlin, the Rio silver medalist, beat a field Thursday that did not include Usain Bolt (who has not broken 10 in two races this year), Jamaican champion Yohan Blake or Olympic bronze medalist Andre De Grasse.
In the women’s 400m hurdles, Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad walked off after the first hurdle. Olympic bronze medalist Ashley Spencer won in 53.90, though Spencer failed to qualify for worlds by placing fourth at the USATF Outdoor Championships two weeks ago.
Rio gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz finished seventh in the 1500m in his first Diamond League meet of the year. Centrowitz, the first U.S. Olympic 1500m champion in 108 years, was second at the USATF Outdoor Championships after a series of setbacks, including an emergency room visit.
Dutchwoman Dafne Schippers took the women’s 200m in 22.10 seconds, well off the fastest time in the world this year held by Tori Bowie (21.77). However, Bowie and Olympic 200m gold medalist Elaine Thompson may both skip the 200m at worlds, opening the door for the defending world champ Schippers and Olympic 400m winner Shaunae Miller-Uibo.
Christian Taylor lost an international triple jump for the first time since May 2015. Cuban rival Pedro Pablo Pichardo outdistanced the double Olympic champion, 17.60 meters to 17.49.
Olympic champion Ryan Crouser won the shot put with a 22.39-meter heave. Crouser and 2015 World champion Joe Kovacs have combined for the 18 best throws in the world this year, with Crouser holding 14 of them. But Kovacs wasn’t in the Lausanne field.
Maria Lasitskene, competing as a neutral high jumper during Russia’s ban, missed on three attempts at a world-record height of 2.10 meters. Still, the 2015 World champion cleared 2.06, best in the world since 2011.
The Diamond League moves to London on Sunday, with NBC Sports Gold coverage at 7:20 a.m. ET and Universal HD coverage at 9 ET.
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