Wayde van Niekerk, quicksilver and commanding on the track, was less so at his first public appearance since being carried off the turf with a knee injury during a celebrity touch rugby game at Newlands Rugby Stadium in 2017. Van Niekerk’s sponsors had asked him to say a few words to a media contingent of about 40 journalists.
The reigning 400m Olympic champion, two-time 400m world champion and world 400m record holder said something barely audible about being happy to be back before diffidently looking to exit the stage as quickly as possible. If fans had been expecting him to thump his chest after 18 months of enforced reflection while convalescing from knee reconstruction surgery and to announce his return to action in a swaggering style befitting the all-time great that he is, they were disappointed.
But there he was, a wisp of a man only slightly bigger than a middle distance athlete (he is 1.8m tall and 72kg), still reticent and sounding almost apologetic about taking on the massive task facing him in his attempts to get back to the top of the hill in the one-lap sprint.
So much for Van Niekerk being the next Usain Bolt…
Before his injury, there was a push for Van Niekerk to fill the Bolt-sized void the retiring Jamaican would leave in the sport at the conclusion of the 2017 World Championships. In a sport still reeling from revelations of systematic and state-sponsored doping by Russian athletes, there was a need for a fast, clean athlete to replace Bolt as the face of athletics. Someone, perhaps, with the religious morals to keep him in check.
The chosen one
Bolt had already anointed Van Niekerk as his successor as the new global superstar of athletics: “He’s shown he’s ready for the challenge. He’s really down to earth, he’s really humble and he’s a great person. He listens and wants to be good, and if he continues like this he’ll take over track and field.”
The Jamaican legend’s nomination was made with Van Niekerk’s eye-watering numbers in mind. Aside from the titles and world record, the South African is also the only sprinter in history to have run the 100m in under 10 seconds, the 200m in under 20 seconds and the 400m in under 44 seconds. But the man from Bloemfontein is highly unlikely to pass the chest-thumping test that sprinters have turned into an art form.
While essentially shy, intensely private and prone to bouts of modesty in line with his Christian beliefs, the soft-spoken Van Niekerk came across as someone who, on his return to competition, still agrees with the notion in principle.
“To me, I see it more as a motivation,” he said. “For us, as South African athletes, when have we ever imagined that there would be a South African poster boy for athletics? That alone was massive for me and was motivation for me to want to step up, and nothing has changed.
“I continuously want to step up and do great and improve myself as an athlete, and if that leads to me being a poster boy for athletics, then it’s great. But first I have to make sure that I’m clean and I’m doing well and I’m on the right track, because there’s no use me getting carried away by this whole thing if I’m not even capable of physically being where I need to be.”
All this global superstar talk could well be hindered by Van Niekerk’s ability to return to record-breaking form after such a serious knee injury.
The 26-year-old has already mentioned not being pain-free in the reconstructed knee and is struggling to regain fluency in the running gait American athlete Justin Gatlin once described as poetry in motion. This was evident from the footage of his race in Bloemfontein, where he looked out of sorts for the first 200m and finished in a pedestrian 47.28s.
Shelving ambitions … for now
Perhaps a broader hint as to how much things have changed is Van Niekerk’s decision to focus on the 400m – in an attempt to become the first man to run it in under 43 seconds – and temporarily shelve his flirtation with the 200m, his preferred event.
“You’re going to have to miss me in that area [the 100m and 200m],” he said. “At the moment, I haven’t had any thoughts of doing that right now. But if the times come [in the 400m], I guess the opportunities [to race in the shorter sprints] will come.
“We’re basically leaning towards the 400m now. I want to see the 42 [seconds]. That’s where my heart and mind is, I want to focus and properly invest in getting that 42. Then I can get back to what I really want to do, which is the one and two [100m and 200m].”
If his ambitions sound like a tall order, few people are better qualified to achieve the impossible than Van Niekerk. Born two months premature and weighing just 1kg, Van Niekerk has been fighting the odds since needing a blood transfusion to tide him over in his first few months on the planet.
The race in which he won Olympic gold and broke the world 400m record in Brazil three years ago is a case in point: it’s unheard of to win a championship from lane eight, let alone break a 17-year-old record. Hell, Van Niekerk’s only known as a 400m runner because his coach made him do it to iron out chronic injuries sustained from the shorter sprints.
Yet, he’s a multiple gold medal winner from an event in which he says he “dies” every time he races it.
Chasing Bolt’s record
Were his infamous fighting spirit to take him over the line as the first man to run the 400m in the mythical territory of 42 seconds, there is a genuine belief that Van Niekerk could break Bolt’s ridiculous 200m record of 19.19s.
Marc Labuschagne – a former South African sprints coach and former coach to Mathew Quinn, Heide Seyerling (now Quinn) and Lee-Roy Newton – explained a couple of years ago why Van Niekerk can break Bolt’s record: “In my opinion, if he decided to run the 200m, he has the capacity to comfortably run a 19.5s.
“He’s got speed, endurance and if you look at his foot contact [with the track], he’s got incredible cadence. He’s the full package and you’d struggle to find a box he doesn’t tick. And he’s incredibly well coached. That’s why it wouldn’t shock me if he ended up breaking the 200m world record. It would be hard for Wayde to get to the 200m record, but if that was his goal, it would take him about two to three years to get there.”
Going for gold
But before we get ahead of ourselves, there is the small matter of what Van Niekerk hopes to achieve at this year’s World Championships in Qatar, Doha, where he did the bulk of his rehab work for his injury.
“I’ve felt gold, so I don’t want anything else,” he said. “But the reality is I still need to respect where the body is and what it is capable of doing. But the mentality is to go out for gold, which is what I did in the three years prior to the injury. It’s where my heart and mind is and I still believe I can do it. Reality and what you want aren’t always the same, but I’m hoping for the same.”
As for that face of athletics thing, maybe the sport – which has a history of being dominated by champions with a penchant for cheating – needs Jesus.