Wayde Van Niekerk took track and field by storm when he won the world 400m title in Beijing in 2015. Having since proved that was no fluke, he is now a serious contender for gold in Rio.“He has some speed. I must say, he does have some speed,” said an appreciative Usain Bolt after training with reigning 400m world champion Wayde Van Niekerk in the Jamaican capital, Kingston, in early June.
At a meeting in the Jamaican capital a few days later, the South African clocked 31.03 in the 300m, the third-fastest time in the history of the distance.
Over the last year Van Niekerk has also impressed in the more conventional sprint events. And at the age of 23, he became the first athlete to run the 100m in under 10 seconds (9.98), the 200m in under 20 (19.94) and 400m in under 44 (43.48).
The last of those times came in Van Niekerk’s breakthrough run at the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing. In winning gold in the fastest 400m final in history, the South African was one of three runners to dip below the 44-second mark, with the USA’s LaShawn Merritt and Grenada’s Kirani James coming in behind him in 43.65 and 43.78 respectively.
Sky is the limit
Born on 15 July 1992 in Cape Town, Van Niekerk took up sprinting when he was 17. “I’d started training for the sprints at the end of 2009, having done high jump,” he recalled. “My last height was about 2.04 or 2.05, but the fact that I qualified for the World Juniors in the 200m meant that the sprints chose themselves, and after that I started concentrating on the 200m and 400m.”
“I’ve always been active since my school days,” he added. “I’ve always taken part in athletics and rugby, my stepdad does long distance and marathons, and my father did both high jump and now and then sprints and rugby.
“My mother was also an athlete who did sprints and the high jump as well, but then she got pregnant and ended up stopping. I just carried on the legacy. Sport has always been something my family does.”
Recalling his maiden international appearance and his first trip outside South Africa, at the 2010 IAAF World U20 Championships in Moncton (CAN), Van Niekerk said: “In Moncton, it was my first time competing abroad, and surprisingly I made it through to the finals. It wasn’t what I expected, so I never had goals, so all I had to do was run. I got dipped for third place by the Canadian Aaron Brown. He ran 21.00 and I ran 21.02.”
Buoyed by that debut showing, the South African sprinter began his inexorable rise to the top, winning national, continental and international titles from 2011 onwards and then achieving his unique hat-trick of 100m, 200m and 400m times and landing a world title at the longest of the three distances.
Continually striving for more, Van Niekerk is expected to line up in the 400m only at Rio 2016, an event in which he can expect some stiff competition from defending champion Kirani James and the ever sharp Merritt.
Yet judging by his brilliant showing in Beijing and his continuing excellence this season, the Cape Town sprinter has every chance of lighting up the track in the Olympic final on 14 August.