It was just over a week ago that Van Niekerk won gold at the World Championships in Beijing but this time he was shaded by American LaShawn Merritt and Grenada’s Kirani James as he conceded his first 400m defeat this year.
Merritt, a former Olympic champion, won in 44.18 seconds but it was not enough to prevent second-placed James (44.28) from lifting the Diamond Race which made him $40,000 (R542,479) richer and the recipient of a spectacular Diamond Trophy.
James will also end the year with the unchallenged honour of being the world No 1. Van Niekerk placed third in 44.35, which was a far cry off his world-title winning time of 43.48 in the Chinese capital. Beijing silver medallist Merritt ran a perfectly-timed race as he led the field at the start of the home straight. At that stage of the one-lap race. he did not look like he would be in trouble although James and Van Niekerk closed the gap over the final 10 metres.
South Africa’s other sprint hope, world bronze medallist Anaso Jobodwana, also failed to warm to the occasion on a chilly night. He arrived in Zurich as the leader on the 200m standings but he was upstaged by the winner Alonso Edward (20.03) of Panama, who finished outside the medal placings in Beijing.
Jamaica’s Rasheed Dwyer (20.20) ran second, followed closely by Jobodwana (20.24). Like Van Niekerk, Jobodwana ended third on the season-end Diamond League standings. There were sixth-place finishes for SA’s Wenda Theron Nel (55.82) in the women’s 400m hurdles and Godfrey Mokoena (7,73 metres) in the men’s long jump.
Thursday night’s event in Zurich, Switzerland, was the first of two IAAF Diamond League finals and 16 Diamond Race champions of 2015 were crowned. The remaining final will be next Friday, 11 September, in the Belgium capital Brussels, at the 50 000-seater King Baudouin Stadium.
The organisers have announced that the world’s fastest sprinters Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin will race there, but not against each other. “No chance for a rematch,” said meeting director Wilfried Meert. “Will be Gatlin in the 100 and Bolt in the 200.”