Van Niek­erk’s strength lies be­yond 100m, says coach

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

FRESH off a record-break­ing per­for­mance in the 400 me­tres at the Rio Olympics, South African sprinter Wayde van Niek­erk finds him­self among a crowd of ath­letes jostling for the man­tle of the re­tir­ing Usain Bolt, who has long out­shone all his ri­vals.

The 24- year- old smashed Amer­i­can Michael John­son’s 17-year-old record in the 400 at the Rio Games with a time of 43.03 sec­onds, and is the only man to break 44 sec­onds in the 400m, 20 sec­onds in the 200m and 10 sec­onds in the 100m.

But even those per­for­mances pale be­side the achieve­ments of the Ja­maican great, whose reign at the top will end when he re­tires af­ter the world cham­pi­onships in Lon­don in Au­gust.

Bolt wrapped up his Olympic ca­reer in Rio last year with a ‘triple-triple’ sweep of gold medals in the 100, 200 and 4x100 re­lay for three straight games.

He also holds world records for the 100 and 200 as well as help­ing Ja­maica set the 4x100 mark at the 2012 Lon­don Games.

“I have the ut­most re­spect for Usain Bolt and what he’s done for the sport,” van Niek­erk said in an in­ter­view in Bos­ton, where he is pre­par­ing to com­pete in this week­end’s Adi­das Boost Bos­ton street meet.

“I’m not us­ing him as some­one whose records I want to break, I’m us­ing him as some­one who in­spires me,” added the South African, whose coach is 75-year-old great-grand­mother of five Ans Botha.

Long-time track ob­servers and van Niek­erk’s fel­low com­peti­tors, say that no one ath­lete may have the speed and charisma to dom­i­nate public per­cep­tion like Bolt.

“I don’t think that’s a role that’s go­ing to be filled by any one per­son, but Wayde van Niek­erk is go­ing to be one of the peo­ple who can hold the public’s at­ten­tion,” said Ato Boldon, a four-time Olympic medal­list from Trinidad and Tobago and NBC sports an­a­lyst. Ja­maica’s Yohan Blake, who won sil­ver at the Lon­don Games in the 100 and 200, sees him­self as Bolt’s “heir ap­par­ent”. He trained with the South African last year and said he was im­pressed by van Niek­erk’s abil­i­ties.

“A lot of peo­ple want to take over but I think he’s in a good po­si­tion,” Blake said. “Lis­ten, he ran 43 zero. That’s al­most in­hu­man. He has the plat­form, he has the body. And he can do it.”

Van Niek­erk, who ad­mits to wear­ing his fame un­easily, is aim­ing for dou­ble golds in the 200 and 400 in Lon­don, and in an April in­ter­view with The Times of Lon­don mulled the pos­si­bil­ity of try­ing to break Bolt’s records in the 100 and 200.

But ob­servers say the South African has not yet shown the speed to achieve that. Van Niek­erk’s 100 and 200 per­sonal bests - 9.98 and 19.90 - are well off Bolt’s world records from 2009 of 9.58 and 19.19.

“He hasn’t shown that he has that top-end speed over the 100 me­tres,” said Mau­rice Greene, a four-time Amer­i­can Olympic medal­list and for­mer 100 world record holder. “But I don’t put any­thing past an ath­lete.”

Van Niek­erk’s coach, Botha, agreed that the ris­ing star’s strength is likely to lie in dis­tances be­yond the 100.

“When you’ve reached a goal or a dream, you al­ways have to strive for bet­ter,” Botha said. “I think he will be a much bet­ter 200 me­tres, 400 me­tres ath­lete.”

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