Wayde van Niekerk
2016 SPORTS NEWSMAKER: The little giant
In a country with a rich history of sporting excellence, no other athlete has come close to what the diffident Bloemfonteiner has achieved: despite being a relatively slight man, he bestrides his chosen sport like a colossus
If track and field had grand slams, Wayde van Niekerk would hold one and the great Usain Bolt another. Van Niekerk is a world and Olympic champion, and a world record-holder over 400m; the charismatic Jamaican owns all three of those titles in the 100m and 200m. Such achievements are as rare as holding all four of golf’s major titles or winning all four grand slam events in tennis.
Van Niekerk has been unbeatable over 400m for the past two years. In purely parochial terms he is the SA sportsperson of the year, prevailing against some stiff competition: Caster Semenya also won Olympic gold, in the women’s 800m; Brad Binder is world champion in motorcycling’s MotoGP3; and Hank McGregor has dominated kayaking across the world.
In a country with a rich history of sporting excellence, no other athlete has come close to what the diffident Bloemfonteiner has achieved: even though he’s a relatively slight man, he bestrides his chosen sport like a colossus.
With the quickly shifting fortunes of sport, Van Niekerk could soon be where Bolt is now: unchallenged on the world stage. When Bolt dashed up into the Rio stands after winning the Olympic 100m to embrace Van Niekerk who, a few minutes earlier had won the 400m, it was like a departing hero anointing an emerging one.
But though Bolt is now 30, he has not quite gone and since that moment in the stands there has been talk of a Bolt-Van Niekerk clash over 200m, which is the closest crossing of their paths. Even though Bolt is still clearly the faster (his world record stands at 19.19sec), age is slowing him down. Van Niekerk’s best time for the distance is 19.94sec but the South African, at 24, has youth and versatility on his side: he is the only man to have run the 100m in under 10sec, the 200m in under 20sec and the 400m faster than 44sec.
This week Van Niekerk held out the possibility of a meeting in the 200m at the world championships in London in August. In an interview with the Financial Mail, Van Niekerk said he was considering adding the 200m to the 400m at the championships.
"I would love to do a few short sprint races (100m and 200m), but I still have to get past my coach, though," he said. "I might double up in the 200m and the 400m at the world championships in London."
The caveat about his coach must be taken seriously. Anna Sofia Botha, a 75-year-old great-grandmother, is a benevolent martinet. Better known as Tant Ans, Van Niekerk’s coach calls the shots. She persuaded Van Niekerk to switch from his favourite event, the 200m. Both events can be hard on the body but she felt he could handle the 400m better. Not that the one-lap sprint is a stroll. Van Niekerk told France’s Le Figaro that he hated the 400m "because I know what it does to my body, but I love it for what it does for my life".
After winning the world championship 400m last year in Beijing, he collapsed and had to be carried off the track. Whether Tant Ans will allow him to have his way in London is not known and Van Niekerk’s plans for the year are not yet specific.
"First I need to get into my training routine in order to properly prepare for the challenges and goals for the season," he said. "My aim is to stay fit and healthy."
Fitness and freedom from injury are always concerns, but where Van Niekerk is unlikely to suffer is in his mind. His strong mental state was never more evident than during the Olympic 400m final. He had drawn the worst of starting places, lane eight on the outside. With a staggered start, he was quite alone, his rivals unsighted behind him; he would need to run the race on his own. No-one had ever won a major title from that position.
"There was no strategy," he said after his Olympic victory. "I just went out as hard as I could. I kept thinking someone was going to catch me because I felt so alone."
So much for loneliness being the preserve of only the long-distance runner.
There was pain, too. The 400m, more than any other sprint because it lasts for a good 43 seconds the way Van Niekerk runs it, puts an athlete through agony that strikes when the body’s lactic system is overwhelmed, on the final straight.
"That’s when you feel you have no control over your limbs," says Marcello Fiasconaro, a former world record-holder in the 800m who lost a national 400m title in 1971 after drawing the outside lane.
Van Niekerk recalls "just driving for the line" over the last 100m of the Olympic final. Then the man who is a devout Christian fell to his knees "to thank God and to give thanks for the chance to compete against such great athletes".
Among the great athletes he beat that day were Kirani James and LaShawn Merritt. Both are former Olympic and world champions yet they could not live with the South African in the Rio final. His victory came in 43.03sec, breaking Michael Johnson’s 1999 world record by 0.15sec. James was second in 43.76sec and Merritt third in 43.85sec.
Van Niekerk was fated to win: a few hours before he had watched his favourite football team, Liverpool, beat Arsenal 4-3 and winning was on his mind.
When Bolt dashed up into the Rio stands after winning the Olympic 100m to embrace Van Niekerk who, a few minutes earlier had won the 400m, it was like a departing hero anointing an emerging one