LONDON, August 12, 2017 – If you ask the soon-to-retire Usain Bolt who the next face of athletics is, the world’s fastest man has no doubt. His top choice is South Africa’s Wayde. But what is it that makes the 25-year-old sprinter stands out from thousands of top athletes gathered in London for the IAAF World Championships?
Van Niekerk is the 200m Olympic champion from Rio, where just for a moment, he took some of the spotlight from Bolt himself by setting breaking the world record, and announcing himself to the world. This time, the young South African came to London with expectation on his shoulders, and a grand bid to win the 400-200 double. There were whispers of a new world record, if the elements allowed.
“If the weather plays the part? It (the world record) is gonna be very likely.” Speaking with AIPS exclusively three days before the 400m final in the media hotel, Van Niekerk's manager, Peet Van Zyl, had noo doubt on this young sprinter’s potential.
After sealing his first gold medal in London with a smooth 43.98 run in the 400m, Van Niekerk said “I’ll continue to get more medals, this is not the end.”
He kept his promise, however, not a gold one. Battling through the competitive lineup of the 200m final, including his top competitor Bostwana's Isaac Makwala, Van Niekerk started the first 100m in a good advantage. But at the last 10m, Turkey's Rami Guliyev dived in and crushed the South African's double title dream. Finishing second with 20.11, Van Niekerk generously congratulated the Turkish athlete at the finish line.
In the 200m semi-final Van Neikerk had struggled. He was tired people said, he had put too much pressure on himself. It was too early to aim for a double. He only qualified for the final as one of the ‘fastest losers’. Some of the limelight he had been expecting in London, had shifted.
Speaking with the BBC, the South African emotionally confessed that this championship was a huge challenge, both physically and mentally. “After the 400m, there is quite a lot of people that felt I didn’t deserve it, I am glad that I can come out and put up a good fight.”
He dismissed assertions that IAAF had unfairly quarantined Isaac Makwala ahead of the 400m final pave the way for Van Niekerk to win gold.
“It really did upset me a bit because I have always shown him massive respect and for him to mention my name in something fishy, as an IAAF favourite is unfair,” said Van Niekerk, “I’ve been putting out great performances for the last two years now so I think I deserve way more respect from my competitors. I want to compete and I’m not here to make friends, so I learned a great lesson, to focus on myself and not letting negative things affect me.”
It is a whole different kind of pressure when from championship golden boy, you find the crowds cheering for your competitor, Isaac Makwala as the the sole-runner underdog.
Despite it all after the 200m, with many expecting Makwala to make that extra step and take a medal, his 75-year-old coach, Ans Botha knew it clearly, knew Van Neikerk would rise above the pressure. She welcomed her pupil outside the mix zone with a big hug exclaiming, “That’s my boy!”
Does Van Niekerk have what it takes to become the new golden boy? Even though his ending in London was not as picture perfect as he planned – he didn’t break his own world record in the 400m, he missed out the 200m gold, but he proved he is very very close to doing it all. After his final race the South African said: “[Running] six races has been really tough but I'm glad I gave it my all, and I proved that I can be dominant.”
‘Three golds in three years’
Statistically, since Van Niekerk broke Michael Johnson's 17-year standing 400m record last year in Rio, while running in the outmost lane, he is destined to be the king of the event. This time in London, his run in the 400m was consistent all the way up to him crossing the finish line and claiming gold. The title meant three gold medals in three years after 400m success at the World Championships in 2015, and at the Rio Olympics last year.
If he is the undisputed top of the world in the 400m, then why go for 200?
“He likes speed, he doesn't like the 400, but he is good at it. That’s why he is doing the 200 this time, because he wants to challenge himself and show the world what he can do.” Van Neikerk’s manager Peet Van Zyl explained. It might sound strange that the world record holder dislikes his best discipline – but it is something he has never kept secret. The key was proving to the world that his love for speed and shorter distances could also translate into a medal.
‘Where did this kid come from?’
Making his international debut in 2010 at the World Junior Championships, 18-year-old Van Niekerk, who was South Africa’s national champion, raced in the 200m, finishing in fourth place with a 21.02 time. With such a confirmation, Van Niekerk would have continued his journey in the short-sprinting world if he had not meet his coach, Ans Botha two years later, who convinced the athlete to transition to a full-lap race. Even if 400m was not the boy’s favourite, without Botha’s insisting, the world might have missed out on a 400m talent.
“It is just the beginning of what I can achieve." Even though his plan didn't go exactly the way he wanted this time in London, his 200m run can still be another top force in the near future. Van Niekerk is the only sprinter in history that do can run sub-10 in 100m, sub-20 in 200m and sub-44 in the 400m. He is also has the world's best in the rarely-run 300m with a 30.81 time, Van Zyl revealed.
However, if he does want to meet Bolt’s own expectations and become the next face of the sport, there is more work to be done besides just racing fast. The young South African has started to learn the lesson that endurance - on ad off the track- is just as important as his favored speed.
"Continuing to send the message, continuing to perform good, continuing to get the medal and continuing to make a legacy – this is what I want to do." And it is what he already on the path to doing.