It was almost vintage Usain Bolt.
Slow start, work your way up, and at the end look left and right before coasting first across the line in a jog.
This time it was Wayde van Niekerk winning his opening heat in the 400 meters on Saturday, his first race of possibly six in as many days at the world championships. The Olympic champion crossed in 45.27 seconds, .26 ahead of Nery Brenes of Costa Rica.
Like Bolt, a rival setting off faster no longer phases him. Van Niekerk just made sure he produced some extra power on the final straight to rein in Brenes.
Van Niekerk is seeking to win gold in both the 400 and 200 meters over the next week. He is tipped by many to become the sport’s next star now that Bolt is retiring after the world championships.
In both races, though, he might find his toughest rival in Isaac Makwala of Botswana. Makwala was just as good in his heat. Following a fast start, it was a jog in the finishing straight as he finished in 44.55 for the top time of the day.
The two are equally tight competitors in the 200, too, yet there is no bitterness in their rivalry.
“Wayde van Niekerk is my brother,” Makwala said. “We want to conquer the world together and make the final for Africa. He is so friendly and a lovely guy.”
The pair dominated the morning session at the Olympic Stadium, but by dusk, all eyes will be on Bolt as he tries to bow out with a last individual gold in the 100 meters.
Other finals on Saturday are the men’s discus and long jump, and the women’s 10,000.
The two-day heptathlon also started and after two events Olympic champion Nafi Thiam took the lead. She scaled 1.95 meters in the high jump to reach a total of 2,215 points.
In a battle of 22-year-olds, Yorgelis Rodriguez matched Thiam in the high jump with an incredible 8-centimeter improvement of her personal best to keep in touch in the overall standings with 2,207 points. Caroline Schafer of Germany was third with 2,165.
One of Thiam’s toughest rivals, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, only cleared 1.80 in the high jump, well short of her best of 1.98, to dent her gold-medal hopes. She was in fifth position with 2,053 points.
In the women’s 100, all the favorites advanced to the semifinals despite a downpour that affected many of the runners.
Twenty-year-old Gina Luckenkemper of Germany, who raced before the rain came, had the top time of 10.95 seconds. She was the only woman to break the 11-second mark.
Olympic champion Elaine Thompson of Jamaica easily won her heat in 11.05, while Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands had more of a struggle finishing second to Marie-Josee Ta Lou of Ivory Coast. Ta Lou had the second-best time of 11.00.
Tori Bowie of the United States got the worst of the rain but still looked very strong as she took her heat in 11.05.
The semifinals and final are set for Sunday.
In men’s shot put qualifying, Tomas Walsh had a massive throw of 22.14 meters, which the IAAF said was the second biggest in the 34-year history of the event. The championship record is 22.23 meters, set by Werner Guenthor in 1987.
Joining Walsh in Sunday’s final with a first automatic qualifying mark were Olympic champion Ryan Crouser and two-time world champion David Storl of Germany.