On Sunday night, in what we can confidently say was the most remarkable track race of the Olympics so far, South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk won gold in the men’s 400-meters in 43.03 seconds—breaking Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old record by .15 seconds. Such was the enormity of the 24-year-old’s achievement that even Usain Bolt was overcome with awe.
For track savvy fans, van Niekerk’s blistering race was doubly impressive for one reason in particular: he ran in lane eight.
Quick primer: In sprint events, where lane assignments are required, it’s desirable to be in one of the more central lanes, as you have the best oversight of where you stand vis-à-vis your competition. To incentivize athletes to perform well in their heats and to make an advantageous lane assignment somewhat merit-based, the middle lanes are allotted to athletes based on their performance in previous heats. (That’s why you’ll never see Usain Bolt win a sprint final in lane one or lane eight.) Despite being one of the favorites for gold in the 400, Wayde van Niekerk had only the fifth-fastest time coming out of the semis, which resulted in his crappy lane placement.
Lane 8 is even worse in the 400, where athletes' starting marks are staggered along the first turn of the track. “When you’re running in an outer lane, you have no reference point,” says Danny Mackey, head coach of the Brooks Beasts Track Club. “Having a reference point in sight means you don’t use as much mental energy to figure out where you are in a race. That’s one of the reasons why pacers are used in the middle distances. What Wayde did the other day, from lane eight, is he essentially ran by himself.”
Van Niekerk confirmed as much in a post-race interview with LetsRun.com. “I can’t even tell you what happened in the race. I had no idea—I was blind,” he said. Winning a gold medal in these type of conditions—to say nothing of also setting a world record—speaks volumes to van Niekerk’s mental fortitude.
“To be a great competitor, you really can’t afford to have the belief that one lane is better than another, or that you have a preference,” says Stan Beecham, a performance psychologist who works with Olympians and professional athletes, as well as the University of Arkansas’s renowned track and field team. “If I’m coaching a kid who is in lane eight, I’ll tell him he’s got the best lane because he’s got the straightest lane and the straightest lane is the fastest lane. If I’ve got a kid in lane one, I’ll tell that it’s great because he’ll have to run the race from behind, which will force him to run faster than he ever thought he could—even though lane one has the sharpest turn. It’s all subjective.”
Beecham, who recently published a book called Elite Minds, explained that mind-over-matter extends beyond the world of track-and-field.
“Whatever your condition, you have to want that condition,” Beechum says. “It’s the same with life. Generally, people who are happy, they want what they have. Unhappy people, they want something other than what they have.”
That might sound a little too hokey to be the takeaway of van Niekerk’s gold medal winning performance. And yet, here he is again, post-race: “I don’t think any athlete really wants to be in lane 8. But the moment I had it, I knew it has its advantages and it has its disadvantages. You have the perfect opportunity to go out there and run as hard as you can.”
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