What’s possible for Bolt is possible for me, even if I don’t sell the T-shirts

How do you replace Usain Bolt? In a sport despoiled by drugs and deceit he achieved the remarkable by making people want to believe. He did it using freakish athleticism and slacker cool, Barnum, Bailey and Bolt, the greatest showboat we had seen since Muhammad Ali. Now he is set to leave the global stage at the World Championships in August. Perhaps the only man who can replace him is the one waiting on the green light to attempt the incredible in London.
25 May 2017
by:   Rick Broadbent

Wayde van Niekerk produced the performance of the Olympic Games in Rio even if another Bolt love-in deflected from it. From the outside lane this lithe South African, coached by a 74-year-old great grandmother and inspired by Oscar Pistorius pre-scandal, broke Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record for the 400m. It soon becomes clear that if he lacks Bolt’s vibrant mischief, he is just as interesting. So he wants to become the greatest athlete in history by breaking records in the 100m, 200m and 400m. It is an aim that makes tomorrow’s IAAF Council in London more important than most as the suits consider his request to amend the World Championships schedule so that he can do the 200 and 400 double. “I am a 100, 200 and 400 athlete so will dream for every record there is,” he said. “What sort of athlete would I be if I didn’t?”

Wayde Time Line
Van Niekerk, 24, trained with Bolt last summer but is most impressed by the rarely-seen depths. “For a long time I could admire the athlete and entertainer, but get to know him and you realise he is a good, true person,” he said. “I feed off the way you are around people. Little interactions matter more than achievements. A lot of people say, ‘Wayde, you need to be more of an entertainer’. I am not that type but I see qualities I share with Usain Bolt, and that brings a form of comfort even if it won’t sell T-shirts.”

Van Niekerk is thoughtful company. He talks openly about the global need to judge Pistorius by proxy and is illuminating when discussing how hours after his Rio run he fell into South Africa’s racial schism.

“It broke my heart,” he said of the rush to claim his win as a victory for race via the hashtag “Coloured Excellence”.

“Coloured” may be an offensive term in the UK, but it is how mixed-race South Africans refer to themselves. “I am a proud Coloured,” Van Niekerk said. “I know my roots. I know who my mother is and I know who my grandparents are, but I grew up a South African. It shocked me that as soon as the flag was off my shoulders it became about race. Didn’t they see what I had done? In South Africa it is a problem how easily people want to classify you racially. People want to put themselves in groups but then go to work with black and white people. Isn’t that racist?

“I got abused a lot. I got called traitor because I didn’t accept I was coloured. Black people told me I was living a blind life, but I know what’s going on around me. I just don’t want to support it. It would be better if we all lived as South Africans.”

He would like to be a uniting force in a country still split along racial fault-lines. He may well have the talent to do it. In Rio, in one of the more loaded track finals, he clocked 43.03sec, knocking some 0.15sec off the world record. His immediate aim is to get under the 43-second barrier and put that record beyond a generation. Johnson’s was deemed one of the untouchables.

He recently met Johnson for the first time, which he termed “closure”, and said that training with Bolt for three weeks in Jamaica last summer led to a huge shift in psychology. “I got to realise we are all human beings and that what’s possible for him is possible for me. His environment is no different to ours. That was a massive confidence-booster. A window opened. Why not achieve what they can? When the clock stopped at 43.03 I had no choice but to think of going under 43. To dream of 43.02 would make no sense.”

Track and field sages searched history for a run like Van Niekerk delivered in Rio. The outside lane is supposedly the hard shoulder. With no targets to reel in, he went off at a rate most deemed suicidal. World champion perhaps, he had made a rookie mistake. And then he kept going. His coach, Anna Botha, known affectionately as Tannie Ans (loosely translated as Aunt Annie) crumbled in tears in the stands.

waydeRio2016However, the close-knit team knew this was coming. His manager, Peet van Zyl, said that two weeks beforehand they were training in Italy and Botha had broken down then. “She showed me his times,” he recalled. “They were amazing so I asked what the problem was. She told me, ‘He can break the world record now. It’s too early.’ ”

Van Niekerk was worried too. “Every time I ran in the heats and semi in Rio I felt my hamstring at the 200 metres mark,” he said. “I thought, ‘Please don’t come, I don’t want to feel the pain.’ ” He relaxed by watching his beloved Liverpool beat Arsenal on television — he got engaged in Liverpool at Christmas. “In the race I spent 200 metres waiting for that feeling,” he recalled. “When it didn’t come I thought I would push harder. The presence of my family and fiancée played a massive role. I even completed a victory lap when normally I go to the locker room and close myself in to die.”

Van Niekerk was born in Cape Town 11 weeks premature and his mother, Odessa, jokes that he has always been fast. She also used his success to highlight the issue of premature birth. Always a campaigner, she was an elite runner too, denied a chance to run at the Olympics because of the international sports boycott.

His parents separated when he was 12 but he remains friendly with both his father and step-father. He grew up a Christian but remains curious. “As you start growing spiritually, you start developing your own mindset,” he said. “That’s how I grew stronger. It did not happen all of a sudden. I was never just ‘saved’.”

He tried all sports but excelled at running, where he is now the only man in history to run under 10 seconds for the 100m, under 20 seconds for the 200m and under 44 seconds for the 400m. His preference is the short stuff. “Speed is why I do track and field. I love going fast. That’s where my alter ego takes over. I live for speed. That’s the draw for me,” he said.

What he does next will be fascinating and important. Athletics needs a hero and so does South Africa. The Springboks rugby team are in disarray, transformation and quotas remain thorny issues, and the trailblazing champion of equality is in prison serving a murder charge for shooting his girlfriend.

In other sports, questions about Pistorius would not make it through the PR filter, but Van Niekerk considers them carefully. “He was a real fighter as an athlete,” he said of a man he trained with in 2012. “One session his limbs were totally covered with blisters but he still trained as hard as I did. I was struggling with an injury but that day, I saw what he did and I thought, ‘Oh, who am I to complain?’ As a sports person he was a massive inspiration to me and the whole country, the way he dreamt, wanting to race with the able-bodied guys. It was massive.”

Praising Pistorius for anything risks opprobrium: last year he was jailed for six years for murdering Reeva Steenkamp in their home in February 2013. It was a violent crime made more shocking by the killer’s iconic status.

“It definitely was a massive shock to all of us,” Van Niekerk said. “Not just those of us personally involved with him but it shook everyone around the world. But who are we to judge the situation because we were not there? Ask me to judge the situation and I would never do that because I was not in that position. I can talk about what I have experienced from the person he’s been and I think he had been a great ambassador as an athlete and South African.”

Van Zyl testified in court during the Pistorius trial and still struggles to understand the tragedy. “It doesn’t make any sense — getting that phone call at 3am when at 8pm the night before I was still speaking to both of them because they were going to travel together,” Van Zyl said. “We visit him when we have opportunity but there are limited visitation rights so the family tend to make use of them.”

The day after Van Niekerk won gold he was with Van Zyl when his manager’s phone rang. He did not recognise the number. “It was Oscar phoning from prison to congratulate Wayde.”

The default scandal in athletics is doping and the inevitable consequence of success is that some will doubt Van Niekerk with no evidence other than precedent.

“At first I thought it was upsetting that people would suspect me and put me in that space,” he said. “At the same time I had a conversation and someone told me there is a bright side because it shows how great my achievement was. If I was just an average nobody they would not call me a doper. I still get that comment or two, but I know what I am.”

It remains to be seen whether he does the double in London, but Bolt is only scheduled to run the 100m as he edges towards the endgame. A million-dollar 300m showdown has been mooted between king and prince. That might be a good time to hand over the baton as a new sensation tries to save athletics all over again.

Looking for work?

Nuffin' Long TV has some of the most exciting opportunities around whether you’re a school leaver, a graduate or still studying. We perform at elite level with some of the greatest men and women in sports & entertainment. Click here for more info.