Wayde van Niekerk ahead of the IAAF World Championships London 2017 (© Adidas Fast Zone)
Sitting with the vast bowl shape of the London Stadium directly behind him, Wayde van Niekerk dealt with question after question about being ‘the next Usain Bolt’ as he faced the world’s media at a press conference ahead of the IAAF World Championships London 2017.
Being the quiet, humble soul that he is, the world and Olympic 400m champion dealt with each query patiently and politely.
Van Niekerk is so quiet, the assembled throng struggled to hear him when his microphone failed to work. When it comes to grabbing attention, it is fair to say that the 25-year-old South African is no Bolt. But in his own measured way, he got into his stride – and got his self-effacing messages across.
The fact is, like Bolt, Van Niekerk happens to be an engaging character in his own right. He is also an athletic phenomenon in his own right.
The manner in which he charged away from La Shawn Merritt and Kirani James in the home straight in the Olympic 400m final in Rio last year was as breath-taking as Bolt at his stunning best at the shorter distances.
Anyone who has raced 400m at any level knows only too well about the lactic build-up that seems to turn the legs to jelly in those final 100 metres. That night, running out in front, in a world of his own in lane eight, Van Niekerk looked like a man immune to the quarter-miler’s Kryptonite.
And yet he crossed the line in 43.03, reducing the world record Michael Johnson set at the 1999 IAAF World Championships in Seville (43.18) to rubble.
“I don’t think you have sentences to describe it,” Van Niekerk replied, deep in thought, when asked what it felt like to run through the lactic barrier in Rio.
“I think the best way is to say that God is good. He really just took me from a level of strength to a new level of strength within that last 100 metres. I went from feeling a bit of lactic to feeling nothing.
“When I looked at the video afterwards, I felt my heart beat in my throat. It was massive, looking at the race and how strong I looked.
“It’s a massive confidence booster, knowing I can still do so much better things for myself.”
Van Niekerk has moved on from Rio – from the night he stepped up a level above Merritt and James, the rivals he beat to win the 400m at the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing, and even above the great Johnson.
As the 2017 edition of the IAAF World Championships prepares to get under starter’s orders in London, it is Johnson that Van Niekerk is attempting to emulate, not Bolt.
Bolt has achieved three individual doubles at 100m and 200m at the IAAF World Championships; although this time, in his farewell to the sport, he will of course be concentrating on the 100m (as well as the 4x100m).
Only once has the double of the men’s 200m and 400m been accomplished. That was by Johnson in Gothenburg in 1995.
The Texan very nearly did it in record-breaking style. He won the 400m in 43.39, finishing 0.10 shy of the world record held by his US teammate Butch Reynolds, who took the silver in 44.22.
Then, in the 200m, Johnson stormed to victory in 19.79, missing Pietro Mennea’s world record by 0.07. In doing so, he became the first man to complete a 200m-400m double at an Olympic Games or World Championships.
Now, at 25, Van Niekerk has taken on the challenge of accomplishing what Johnson achieved at the age of 27.
In the process, despite his winter training under the direction of the remarkable 75-year-old Ans Botha having been disrupted by a back problem, Van Niekerk has continued to break down barriers.
Johnson never managed to crack the 10-second barrier for 100m. His best was a more than respectable 10.09.
Competing in Velenje, Slovenia, on 20 June Van Niekerk reduced his PB from 9.98 to 9.94.
Running in Kingston, Jamaica, nine days earlier, he had set a South African 200m record of 19.84. Then, at the Golden Spike meeting in Ostrava on 28 June, he proceeded to eclipse Johnson’s 300m world best by 0.04, clocking 30.81.
So now the South African who finished fourth in the 200m final at the 2010 IAAF World Junior Championships in Moncton can claim to be the only man who has run sub-10, sub-20, sub-31 and sub-44 for 100m, 200m, 300m and 400m.
He has caught up with Johnson in person too. “We met at the Laureus Sports Awards last year,” Van Niekerk said. “It was just a quick chat.”
Asked whether he had seen footage of Johnson’s Gothenburg double, he confessed: “No, I haven’t seen it… I think Michael was a bit before my time. Back then, we really just wanted to be outside and enjoying ourselves as kids.”
In fairness, Van Niekerk was only three in 1995. But, then, having eclipsed Johnson’s 400m world record in Rio, had he not been tempted to take a peek at the 1999 final in Seville?
“I’ve definitely seen what he’s done,” Van Niekerk replied. “I’ve been advised quite a few times before to read his book as well, but I’m not a good reader… I wish he had a movie out or something.”
Perhaps one day there will be a movie called ‘I am Van Niekerk’. If so, don’t expect any of the extrovert larking that hallmarked the Bolt version.
“I’m a very relaxed person,” Van Niekerk said, when asked to compare his character to that of the Lightning Bolt. “I like using my alone time. I think I’m a massive introvert.
“I can be extrovert around the people that I’m quite close with. Yeah, I think that’s who I am… I’m very, very basic.
“But I love working hard and chasing my dreams.
“I feel quite honoured to be compared to someone as great as Usain Bolt. It shows growth in my performances, in what I’m doing as a track and field athlete.
“And it gives me a sense of appreciation from Usain Bolt for the recognition and respect that he gives me. Obviously, I’ve got mutual respect for him and what he’s done for the sport.
“But, like I said earlier, it’s one thing being mentioned as the next big thing. It’s a different thing working hard enough to maintain that title.
“I’m definitely putting in hard work, and hopefully in the next few years I can reach the heights.”
Starting with the challenge of what would be a huge double in London…
“I always wanted to have a go at the 200m and 400m,” Van Niekerk reflected. “At the beginning of this year, I thought, ‘I’ve done quite well in the 400m for the last two three years now. Why not challenge myself to win more and try to double up?’
“I think definitely my number one rival will be myself, because this will be the first time I’ve challenged myself at this level and go through six rounds of competing.
“I’m quite nervous, to be honest with you, but I’m quite confident in doing well.
“If it’s meant to be, the story will play out perfectly. But, at the same time, I see it as a massive learning curve for myself.
“So, if things don’t go my way, then eventually they will – because I will learn from this experience.”
Simon Turnbull for the IAAF