Wayde van Niekerk's leap into track superstardom put on hold in 200 final

Wayde van Niekerk, left, was stunned by Turkey's Ramil Guliyev on Thursday's 200-meter final and fell short of completing the rare 200-400 double. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

LONDON -- Wayde van Niekerk was facing much more than seven other sprinters in the 200-meter world championship final Thursday. He was competing against the legacies of two of track and field's greatest champions: Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson.

The burden proved too great, even for an athlete of Van Niekerk's immense talents. Two days after winning the 400, the South African was upset in the 200 by Ramil Guliyev of Turkey, who won in 20.09 seconds. Van Niekerk took silver Thursday in a 20.11 photo finish with Jereem Richards of Trinidad and Tobago.

Bolt, who had won every championship in the event since 2008 and still owns the world record of 19.19, elected to skip the 200 in this final meet of his career. Johnson, who held the world record for 12 years before Bolt, is the last person to capture the 200-400 double that Van Niekerk attempted here in London.

The track and field world yearns to anoint Van Niekerk as the next face of the sport, to fill the void of Bolt's imminent retirement. The South African has been the top candidate since taking down Johnson's 17-year-old 400 world record at the 2016 Rio Olympics, running a mind-blowing 43.03 from the outside lane. His best 200 time is 19.84.

Can Van Niekerk duplicate Johnson's double? Eclipse Bolt's 200 world record? Break the 43-second barrier in the 400? He's the only person in history to run under 10 seconds in the 100, under 20 in the 200, and under 44 in the 400. Can he become the first to win world titles in all three events?

These are the narratives the beleaguered sport of track and field needs to survive. Van Niekerk is 25, handsome and articulate, confident without being brash, with a great backstory about being coached by a 75-year-old great-grandmother. A victory Thursday would have officially established him as track and field's golden boy.

Instead, he was stunned by a balding, tattooed, Azerbaijan-born Turk who speaks little English and ran with a skull ring on his left middle finger.

"It's my dream and I make it," said Guliyev, 27, after taking a congratulatory phone call from the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Van Niekerk also was defeated by the grueling six races of the 200-400 double, and by London's cold, rainy weather. Adrenaline made sleep difficult after he won the 400 on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he struggled in the 200 semifinals, finishing third in his heat and barely squeaking into the final.

With 50 meters to go Thursday, Van Niekerk slightly led Guliyev but could feel his legs tiring. "I just tried to keep fighting and making sure that I could get over the finish line amongst the medals," he said. "I think silver is still a beautiful color to have."

He was almost passed by Richards, 23, who took home the first individual medal of his career. "I thought I came in second," Richards said. "Honestly, I was glad to get a medal ... just to get a medal here is a great achievement."

Finishing sixth in 20.44 was Isaac Makwala of Botswana, one of Van Niekerk's main rivals. Makwala took a tortured path to the starting line -- meet organizers barred him from competing Tuesday because of an alleged case of the norovirus that sickened about 30 people, preventing him from running in the 400 final. He was given a solo time trial Wednesday night to advance to the 200 semis. Makwala said having to run all out in the time trial left him too tired to compete for a medal.

So, there would be no 200-400 double for anyone in London. Johnson's achievement is probably safe for the foreseeable future. Van Niekerk says he plans to focus on the less taxing 100-200 double next season, and will run the 400 by itself and try to break the 43-second barrier.

"I would never try to fill up Usain Bolt's shoes, neither would I try with Michael's," he said. "I've shown enough dominance, I've shown enough hard work, enough performances to start building my own brand."

Van Niekerk wasn't disappointed to have missed competing against the great Bolt.

"It wasn't my time. This is my time now, my generation now," he said. "I still have some great competition. I mean, I barely made it to second place. I have lots of respect for the guys I'm competing against now.

"They just made me realize it's not going to be a walk in the park the next few years. I have to work to get to the gold medal."