Wayde van Niekerk, South Africa's EMERALD SPEEDSTER
Wayde wants to prove that he is one of the best by defending his 400m crown, writes Ockert de Villiers
“NOTHING IS impossible,” Wayde van Niekerk says as he hints to greater things to come in not only his specialist 400m sprint but in the short sprint events.
The golden thread in the build-up to the IAAF World Championships has been about Jamaican legend Usain Bolt’s final hurrah with Van Niekerk named the de facto heir to his throne.
Five years ago Bolt proclaimed he could finally be called a living legend after winning his second consecutive 100-200m double Olympic gold in London 2012.
The world stood in awe of the achievements of the greatest sprinter the world has ever seen as the Jamaican added another double four years later in Rio de Janeiro.
While Bolt cemented his place as one of the greatest athletes to walk the earth, Van Niekerk found some inspiration from the 2012 Olympics after missing out due to injury.
“When the Olympics was here (London) I was back home thinking ‘I am doing good things but I haven’t had the opportunity yet to compete at senior level internationally,,” Van Niekerk said.
“That really gave me a big motivation and a big push to work towards being on these stages and that is where the Rio dream started.
“I remember back in Beijing I would have settled for a final or a bronze medal and I ended up winning the gold.”
The defending 400m world champion no longer has to prove his pedigree in the onelap sprint while his times in the shorter distances certainly places him among the best in the world.
The next week promises to be defining in Van Niekerk’s pursuit of greatness as he hopes to become the first man since Michael Johnson at Gothenburg 1995 to win the 200400m double gold.
“The 100m and the 200m has always been a dream for myself to do great things and the growth is very important. If I can reach those heights, I’d know I’ve used my gifts and talents,” Van Niekerk said on the eve of the London World Championships.
It is that insatiable hunger for growth that has seen Van Niekerk sign up for one of the toughest tests in athletics.
“At Rio I had to back up what I did the year before and luckily I got the record. And now we are onto the third year, so I need to do better than I did last year,” Van Niekerk said.
“That is why I decided to challenge myself to do both the 200m and the 400m.”
Bolt paid the ultimate compliment to the South African, elevating him to potential successor.
“I think Wayde is doing a pretty good job … he’s now going to run the 200m, so for me that’s going to be exciting,” Bolt said.
“I think he wants to be a sprinter really bad, so I think he’s one of the people to watch out for.
“He’s going to be a really good athlete and I’m pretty cool with him and he’s a really nice guy and he’s really chilled. He just has a really enclosed personality.”
Van Niekerk has emerged as one of the most exciting prospects in world athletics after winning the 400m world title two years ago.
He revealed his true potential when he became the first man to dip below 44 seconds in the 400, 20 seconds in the 200m, and 10 seconds in the 100m 2016.
The pièce de résistance of course came at the Rio Olympic Games where he smashed American icon Johnson’s 400m world record with a time of 43.03 seconds.
Armed with a world title and record, an Olympic title, Van Niekerk has finally been given a licence to race the shorter sprinters. To add to his growing legend, he set a new South African 200m record of 19.84 in Kingston, Jamaica.
This year he knocked 0.04 off his 100m time when he clocked 9.94 in Velenje to lift himself to second place on the all-time South African list.
His ability over three distances had the world salivating over the prospect of Bolt and Van Niekerk lining up against each other.
Van Niekerk this week said he would have loved to go toeto-toe with the Jamaican great but would now have to settle for reaching similar greatness.
“He is a great athlete but I know it would have been a tough race because I would be doing 100s and 200s against him which is what he specialises in while I still need to work on,” Van Niekerk said.
“Eventually, I would like to reach the heights Usain has.”
The South African will first have to navigate the pressures of successfully defending his 400m title.
Breaking his own world record has also been a top priority for Van Niekerk as the world dares to dream of a sub-43 second 400m.
Boasting the fastest time in the world this year of 43.62, Van Niekerk will be looking to build on this aura of invincibility.
His performances over the last three years have seen an increase in comparisons between Van Niekerk and Bolt with the South African looking increasingly comfortable in the limelight.
“It shows the positive direction as an athlete, all of us have to have a lot or respect for Usain Bolt and all of us have gained a lot of inspiration and motivation from what he has done for track and field,” Van Niekerk said.
“It is a massive one for me to be mentioned in the light I am right now and it is definitely an area I need to except and take the responsibility.
“I’m not someone who likes wasting opportunities and at the same time I am a competitor, I love competing and that is what makes me go.”
A double gold would edge Van Niekerk a little bit closer to the same legendary status.