The Cape Town rocket
In smashing Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record to win Olympic 400m gold at the age of only 24, South Africa’s Wayde Van Niekerk produced one of the great performances of Rio 2016 and showed that he has the potential to be a dominant force in track and field for many years to come.
Sport in the bloodBorn on 15 July 1992 in Cape Town, Wayde Van Niekerk got his first taste of sport playing rugby with his cousin Chester Kolbe, who went on to play sevens for South Africa, winning a bronze medal at Rio 2016. After deciding his future lay in athletics, Van Niekerk took up sprinting in 2009, at the age of 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. 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.”
International debutRecalling 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.
Super GranIn 2012, Van Niekerk appointed a septuagenarian great-grandmother Ans Botha as his coach, a decision he has not regretted. “My coach is my rock. I have total confidence in her,” said the runner. “When it comes to training she knows exactly what needs to be done. I don’t have the slightest doubt about the plans she puts in place. She has years and years of experience. All I have to do is listen to what she tells me.” The young South African continued his spectacular progress at the 2015 IAAF World Championships at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, setting a new African record of 43.48 to win the 400m title from the two previous world champions at the distance: the USA’s LaShawn Merritt and Grenada’s Kirani James.
Unique hat-trickHaving dipped under the 44-second mark in his favoured event and also run the 200m in under 20 seconds (19.94, on 14 July 2015 in Lucerne), Van Niekerk then beat 10 seconds in the 100m, running 9.98 on 12 March 2016 in Bloemfontein to become, at the age of 23, the first ever athlete to achieve such a feat at the three distances. A further sign of his growing stature in track and field came two months before Rio 2016, when he spent a few days training with Usain Bolt in Kingston. “He has some speed. I must say, he does have some speed,” said the global sprint superstar. As if to prove the point, Van Niekerk then clocked 31.03 in the 300m at a meeting in the Jamaican capital a few days later, the third-fastest time in the history of the distance.
Making track and field historyThe South African stepped out for the Rio 2016 men’s 400m final just before Bolt was due to do the same in the 100m final, when the Jamaican would go for his third successive gold in the event. On a magical evening of track and field, Van Niekerk made sure the great sprinter was not the only topic of conversation by producing a breathtaking run, stopping the clock in a time of 43.03 to beat Michael Johnson’s longstanding world record of 43.18, set at the 1999 World Championships in Seville. What made the new Olympic champion’s performance even more remarkable was the fact that he achieved it running “blind” in Lane 8. Completing the podium behind him were London 2012 champion James and Beijing 2008 winner Merritt, both of whom had nothing but praise for Van Niekerk afterwards and said they were proud to have been part of such an occasion.
Looking back on his wondrous performance, Van Niekerk said: “I wasn’t at all worried about the lane I was in. I just focused on the race I had to run, the finish line and then giving it my all. The lane was maybe a blessing from above. If I’d been in an inside lane, I probably have run a bit more within myself and tried to follow what the others were doing. All could do on the outside lane, though, was run my own race.”
In Van Niekerk, world sprinting seems to have found a new icon, who is determined to build on his success and to explore his limits, wherever they may lay. “I want even more this year. I feel really motivated,” he said after Rio, sounding an ominous warning for his rivals.