By Nick Mulvenney
BEIJING (Reuters) - Wayde van Niekerk ran the sixth fastest 400 meters of all time to beat a stellar field and become the first South African to win a world championship sprint title on Wednesday.
The 23-year-old went hard from the start and held off reigning champion La Shawn Merritt of the United States down the home straight to claim the title in 43.48 seconds.
A personal best of 43.65 was worth no better than silver for Merritt, who stayed on the South African's shoulder around the final bend but could not find enough gas in the last 50 meters to overhaul him.
The South African collapsed onto the track exhausted at the end of the race and was taken straight off for medical treatment.
Olympic champion Kirani James of Grenada finished third to claim bronze in 43.78, his best run of the year, ensuring the top three ran under 44 seconds for the first time at a world championships final.
"It’s crazy. We’re warriors. We’re animals. The 400 is never easy. We’ll rise to the occasion. I love this. I love this sport," said Merritt.
"I ran well, it wasn’t enough for the gold tonight, but the winning time was a great time I can’t complain. Got the silver and can go home with some hardware."
James, one of a record five runners in the field who had a personal best under 44 seconds, said he thought he had a chance coming into the final straight but the pace was just too hot for him.
"It’s a very special occasion. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity," he said. "I’m just glad to be part of this special group of 400 meters runners in this era.
"I just tried to do my best out here."
Van Niekerk holds both the South African 200 and 400 meters records but was unable to run in both in Beijing because of the schedule.
With the personal best of 19.94 he ran in the 200 meters earlier this year, he joined Michael Johnson, Merritt and Isaac Makwala as the only athletes to have gone under 20 seconds in the 200 and 44 seconds in the 400.
Only Johnson, who set the world record of 43.18 in 1999, and fellow Americans Butch Reynolds and Jeremy Wariner have gone faster over one lap.
Botswana's Makwala, who also joined the sub-44 club this year and had the best time of 2015 going into the final, finished fifth in 44.63.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Mitch Phillips)