I don’t do this for the recog­ni­tion

Wayde van Niek­erk in no rush to in­herit Usain Bolt’s crown – just wants to make his mom proud

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - DAVID COX

“AS A son you al­ways want to make your mother proud,” Wayde van Niek­erk tells me, as we sit in a Lon­don ho­tel room, a stone’s throw away from the sta­dium he watched ea­gerly on tele­vi­sion as a 20-year-old, full of hope and am­bi­tion, five years ago.

The World and Olympic 400m cham­pion smiles shyly, and stretches back in his chair.

“I think that’s what drives me, want­ing to do great things to see that smile on my mother’s face. It’s a way, I guess, of thank­ing her for rais­ing me and shar­ing my dreams.”

In par­tic­u­lar, it was the Olympics that al­lowed them to dream to­gether, Van Niek­erk and his mother Odessa Swarts.

It was watch­ing the Olympics un­fold in 2012 which spurred Van Niek­erk to tell his mother he would both com­pete at the Rio Games and win a medal in four years.

Such was his ob­ses­sion that for four years his e-mail ad­dress even con­tained the phrase “rio2016”. And it was the Olympics, where he scorched to gold in a record 43.03s, oblit­er­at­ing Michael John­son’s time which had stood for 17 long years, where his dreams came true.

But that night in Rio, it was not just Van Niek­erk’s dreams which were ful­filled, but those of his mother’s own ca­reer, one which never had the op­por­tu­nity to flour­ish.

To­day, Van Niek­erk is an ath­lete slowly be­ing thrust to­wards su­per­star­dom. Not quite yet a house­hold name in the same breath as Usain Bolt, but a man be­ing groomed by sport’s mar­ket­ing gi­ants as the Ja­maican’s suc­ces­sor. At the IAAF World Cham­pi­onships this fort­night, he aims to become the first man since John­son in 1995 to com­plete the 200m/400m dou­ble.

But with ev­ery vic­tory and record he col­lects, Van Niek­erk helps erase some of the leg- acy that apartheid-era South Africa left on his fam­ily. As a teenager, Swarts was a cham­pion sprinter too, who idolised Florence Grif­fiths-Joyner as she watched the grainy footage of the 1988 Seoul Olympics on the fam­ily tele­vi­sion. But as a black woman, she was for­bid­den from com­pet­ing against the white ath­letes in her coun­try, and in­ter­na­tion­ally.

“We had two dif­fer­ent ath­let­ics fed­er­a­tions back then,” she tells me from her home in Bloem­fontein. “One for blacks and one for whites. And our records and times were never ac­knowl­edged. We had no pro­fes­sional coaches, those were for white ath­letes, we just had our school teach­ers.

“The only way we could mea­sure our­selves and where we stood on a na­tional level, was through the times the news­pa­pers said the white ath­letes were run­ning. Some of their races were tele­vised too. So we’d try and work out if we were on par with them.”

Some black ath­letes fled South Africa and sought cit­i­zen­ship abroad, to have the chance to ful­fil their tal­ent and com­pete on the global stage.

“It was dif­fi­cult back then be­cause there was noth­ing to work to­wards, noth­ing you could hope of be­com­ing one day in sports,” Swarts says. “You knew run­ning at an Olympics or World Cham­pi­onships was never pos­si­ble so al­most to pro­tect your­self, you never al­lowed your­self to dream of what could have been.”

By the time apartheid fi­nally ended in the early 90s, Swarts was mar­ried and had given birth to Wayde. The chal­lenge of bring­ing up a young son, and pro­vid­ing for her fam­ily meant that re­sum­ing her ath­let­ics ca­reer was no longer an op­tion. “I’ve never felt bit­ter,” she says. “It’s just made me want to give Wayde each and ev­ery op­por­tu­nity, be­cause I never had that chance. He’s been able to have dreams.”

How­ever, Van Niek­erk’s her­itage re­mains a di­vi­sive is­sue within South Africa, a legacy of the deep-rooted racial ten­sion which lingers more than two decades later.

Van Niek­erk is un­easy dis­cussing the sub­ject with the me­dia. His agent Peet van Zyl, a for­mer hur­dler, is keen to avoid any in­ter­views deemed “po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated”. When I raise the sub­ject, Van Niek­erk replies qui­etly that he’s keen to rep­re­sent him­self as an ath­lete for “all of South Africa”.

“I’m a South African ath­lete and my main ap­pre­ci­a­tion is for what I’ve con­trib­uted to the whole coun­try,” he says. “I’m just glad to be one of the guys break­ing bar­ri­ers for other South Africa ath­letes to be­lieve in our­selves. We’ve got a great gen­er­a­tion com­ing through with a lot of po­ten­tial.”

His mother be­lieves it’s not his re­spon­si­bil­ity to fly the flag only for black South Africans. “The whole fight over Wayde was dis­ap­point­ing. Wayde goes out and rep­re­sents his coun­try. You don’t go out and rep­re­sent a race. I know a lot of peo­ple feel he is not ac­knowl­edg­ing that he’s coloured, but that’s not what it’s about.”

But Van Niek­erk is used to fac­ing ad­ver­sity, al­most from birth. He was born 29 weeks pre­ma­ture and doc­tors be­lieved he would be pro­foundly dis- abled. Small and skinny as a child, he was bul­lied reg­u­larly at school, but his size be­lied a deep in­ner sto­icism.

Swarts re­mem­bers a time when she found him be­ing knocked to the ground and his text­books thrown from his bag. “I re­mem­ber ap­proach­ing these boys and want­ing to fight them. And he just latched onto my arm, and said, ‘Mummy, can you be­lieve these guys? They’re not even worth wast­ing your en­ergy on.’ I’d al­ways been un­der the im­pres­sion that Wayde al­lowed peo­ple to bully him. But by walk­ing away he was stronger than them.”

A com­pet­i­tive child, whose nat­u­ral run­ning style and ex­plo­sive speed meant he ex­celled at track and field, Van Niek­erk re­calls how a tough school life shaped him as a com­peti­tor. “I had a lot of bad luck at school. I got shoved around a lot. But while peo­ple thought they could break me, the bul­ly­ing made me stronger. I’ve al­ways felt I can stand in my blocks against any ath­lete, whether they’re big­ger or if they’ve beaten me in the past, and not feel in­tim­i­dated.”

De­spite be­ing scouted for his sprint­ing tal­ent, he ex­plains how he gave up ath­let­ics at the age of 11 to pur­sue other sports rang­ing from squash to ten­nis, cricket and soc­cer. His mother was se­cretly deeply dis­ap­pointed, but de­lighted when he re­turned to the track at 16, in­spired by watch­ing boys in his school year train­ing for com­pe­ti­tions. “I think a switch just went on again, and the hunger came back. The mem­o­ries re­turned of when I was younger, and I re­mem­bered how much I en­joyed it.”

But the re­sults did not come im­me­di­ately. At 16, he fin­ished 8th in his school 100m fi­nal. Swarts re­calls him telling her, “I’m go­ing to work harder, and I’ll be much bet­ter than these guys next year.” Two years later he was na­tional cham­pion at 100m and 200m, and fin­ished fourth in the World Ju­nior Cham­pi­onships.

“That was a bit of a wake-up call. I was very raw, get­ting ex­posed to in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion for the first time. But I be­gan tak­ing it more se­ri­ously. And then in 2012, I started to think that per­haps I had the tal­ent to make the fi­nal of a se­nior com­pe­ti­tion. It’s gone from there, I en­joy chal­lenges.”

Largely a 100m and 200m run­ner, his switch to the 400m, the event which has made him glob­ally fa­mous as ar­guably the great­est of all time over the dis­tance, hap­pened com­pletely by chance.

“I was in­jured a few years ago, and my coach said she’d pre­fer for me to switch to the 400m pro­gramme, in or­der for my body to heal. I never started as a 400m run­ner!”

The coach in ques­tion is Tam­mie Ans, the gruffly spo­ken, white-haired 75-yearold, who has mas­ter­minded Van Niek­erk’s re­mark­able tal­ent since he was a ju­nior. The two have a mother-son re­la­tion­ship with Ans learn­ing to put up with Van Niek­erk’s mu­sic taste, while strictly mon­i­tor­ing and reg­u­lat­ing his off-track ac­tiv­i­ties. “She’s never had an ath­lete teas­ing her as much as I do,” Van Niek­erk grins. “She’s had to get used to it. But I’ve been her ideal ath­lete on the 400m, she ab­so­lutely loves the 400m. For me I’m not a big fan of it, the feel­ing in your body when you cross the fin­ish line. It makes you want to re­tire.”

Van Niek­erk gri­maces and smiles. He’s jest­ing about re­tir­ing, but while he’s achieved sub­stan­tial suc­cess in the long­est sprint, his real pas­sion is for the 100m and 200m, which has proved some­thing of a co­nun­drum. “The 400m has brought me to where I am to­day so I’d be stupid to let it go, but at the same time I wish I could leave it,” he says.

“Coach and I are try­ing to find a cen­tre. She’s spoiled me this year, let­ting me do a few 100s and 200s over the sea­son.”

With Bolt’s im­mi­nent re­tire­ment, Van Niek­erk’s man­age­ment team would be happy to see their man at­tempt to fill the Ja­maican’s con­sid­er­able shoes in track and field’s blue riband event. Ru­mours abound that he may run the 100m at next year’s Com­mon­wealth Games.

But while jour­nal­ists, and even Bolt him­self, are keen to brand him as the next poster boy of ath­let­ics, the softly spo­ken Van Niek­erk will be do­ing things his way.

“I’m not after recog­ni­tion, be­ing spot­ted by peo­ple ev­ery­where I go,” he says. “That’s not some­thing which mo­ti­vates me. I want to grow as an ath­lete. This year I started my 400m sea­son faster than ever in the past. That’s what ex­cites me. I’m 25 and I have lot of fine-tun­ing to do. But as a per­son I haven’t changed.”

Swarts would not have it any other way. “Life has been dif­fi­cult for him since break­ing the world record. Peo­ple do forget at times that he’s just hu­man and some­times he needs time to him­self. But he’s achiev­ing things that we never would have thought. The way I see our lives is that God didn’t ac­tu­ally have great­ness in plan for me, but I be­lieve that He chose me to be a mother of some­one who was go­ing to be great.” – The In­de­pen­dent

PIC­TURE: SUPPLIED

400m World and olympic cham­pion with his mother, Odessa Swarts, Bloem­fontein.

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