Wayde van Niekerk never asked to be the saviour of athletics but has been playing the role of its guardian
remarkably well in a World Championships full of controversy.
While athletics governing body the IAAF were castigated for the initial silence in the Isaac Makwala fiasco, Van Niekerk played the role of sporting ambassador in the wake of his 400 metres win. It was a race denied one of the great potential rivalries of this championships when Makwala was pulled for competing because of sickness.
Much like Usain Bolt has done for the past decade, moments after winning the first of a potential golden double in London, he was asked about more than just the race and the medal around his neck. Questioned about the Makwala situation, Van Niekerk said: “I even wish I could give him my medal,” and followed that up by saying his first reaction at hearing the news of his illness and exclusion was to give him a hug.
While the IAAF had said in statements – admittedly too late – that it had empathy for the Botswanan, here Van Niekerk showed the human touch, athlete to athlete. In those few moments, it arguably showed just how ready the 25-year-old is to take over the role of the new king of track and field.
Bolt himself has pre-ordained him thus in the weeks leading up to this World Championship, and while Van Niekerk is embracing it, it does not come entirely naturally to him.
Relatively quiet off the track, “humble” is a key phrase he utters in every press conference and interview. But thrust into the limelight, he is every bit in the mould of a Bolt mark II. Not in the sense that he will ever eclipse what Bolt has done on track, or be quite as colourful of a figure. Yet for a sport crying out for a new star, Van Niekerk has all the trappings.
IAAF president Seb Coe seems to take pleasure in likening Bolt to Muhammad Ali, a not entirely correct analogy, and rather diluting the political and racial stance that the former heavyweight champion of the world took.
But the point is that the sport is bigger than one man – even if Bolt is the biggest athletics has ever had – and can live on after Bolt bows out in the 4x100m relay on Saturday.
In South Africa, Van Niekerk is already a big star but it has taken the affirmation of Bolt for the
nation to fully realise the magnitude of the sporting star in their midst. And the adulation at home and abroad, increasing with every championships, is fully warranted.
His breaking of Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record for the 400m in Rio from lane eight was otherworldly, a wide-eyed Bolt admitting it was the run of the championships.
I left the London Stadium on Tuesday night with Ans Botha, better known as Auntie in her native South Africa and the 75-year-old coach of Van Niekerk.
She smiled proudly at the suggestion of him being athletics’ next superstar while agreeing with it at the same time.
“Michael Johnson took nine years to get to this point,” she said, alluding to the golden double that Johnson had achieved in the 200/400m at the 1995 World Championships. “Wayde’s there in five years.”
Late into the London night, it was perhaps a slip of the tongue but it is hard to see past a Van Niekerk double, such has been his ease both on and off the track in the opening six days of this championships. All, it has to be said, very Bolt-esque.
Veteran Syrian high jumper Majd Eddin Ghazal will gladly put administrative hassles to one side as he bids for a third-ever world medal for his war-torn country.
Ghazal has been a regular on the global circuit, appearing in the last four World Championships and three Olympics, with his seventh-placed finish in Rio last summer being his best result.
But the 30-year-old admits that life has not been easy in Syria, where he is still based, much to the amazement of many fellow athletes.
More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the ongoing conflict began with anti-government protests in March 2011.
“If we didn’t face war in Syria, everything would have been different now, from the visa and financial issues to general athlete’s facilities like access to coaching and treatment,” Ghazal told AFP.
“We’re in a huge crisis, which affects the mentality of athletes.
“Daily life in Syria is extremely hard. You can’t imagine what we face on a daily basis.”
Ghazal added that he encountered problems travelling to compete internationally.
“I have big problems with embassies. They are sometimes afraid I am an immigrant,” he said.
“I’m an expert in embassies, where they are, their addresses, when they open, when they close, what documents you need for visas… I’m an administrative expert in this subject.”
Ghazal was refused a Moroccan visa for the Diamond League meeting in Rabat, but can now travel unimpeded in Europe thanks to a six-month Schengen visa he managed to obtain through a Spanish embassy.
While his daily training regime is based in Damascus, Ghazal also departs, from neighbouring Lebanese capital Beirut as there is no access to international flights from Syria, for overseas camps, notably in Barcelona and Russia over winter, thanks to financial support from the Syrian Athletics Federation.
“Everyone is surprised when I say I still train and live in Syria, especially as I am among the top six in the world,” said Ghazal, nominally employed as a government-paid sports teacher.
With coach Imad Sarraj in tow, Ghazal said the thing he missed when competing was the backroom staff most competitors take for granted.
“I don’t have a doctor, a physio, a masseur, I miss that a lot, especially in a championships where fatigue is great and you have to recover quickly,” he said.
“Because of minor muscular problems, or cramps, you might lose a championships and your heights may range between and 2.20 and 2.30, a huge gap.”
Ghazal, who has suffered pain in his take-off foot, first appears in action in Friday’s qualifiers, and he said: “I don’t think about nailing a certain height. My whole focus will be on reaching the final.”
His best this season has been 2.32m in last month’s Diamond League meet in Paris, while 2.36 in Beijing last year remains his personal best.
“I hope to be as ready as I was in Paris,” Ghazal said, adding that the overall standard of jumping had dipped in 2017.
“I expect surprises this year,” he warned.
Syria has two medals in the world champs, Ghada Shouaa having won heptathlon gold in 1995 and bronze in 1999.
Ghazal, whose first name Majd means “glory”, is backing himself to add a third for a country caught in the crosshairs of a bloody crisis.
* Provided by AFP
American Tori Bowie won the women’s 100 metres world title on Sunday making up for her silver in last year’s Olympics while Rio gold medallist Elaine Thompson struggled home in fifth place.
The 26-year-old made up metres on long time leader Marie-Josee Ta Lou of the Ivory Coast to edge her with the final dip on the line.
Bowie fell to the ground after crossing the line and initially it was Ta Lou who celebrated only for the board to say otherwise.
“I had no idea that I had won,” said Bowie, who has a habit of hurling herself at the line in major championships finals having done a similar thing in the Olympic 200m final last year which saw her take the bronze.
“The only thing I knew was that tonight I was going to lay it all on the line.”
Bowie admitted that perhaps she should stop diving or dipping like that given the pain she was feeling.
“The dive doesn’t feel too good now,” she said. “But that has saved me in the past at championships…I never give up until I am over the line.
“Ta Lou went very fast but she always does so I wasn’t worried and I kept to my race.
“I have a few cuts and bruises but I will now focus on the 200m.”
The Netherlands’ Dafne Schippers finished third while hot favourite and 100m Olympic champion Thompson faded to fifth.
The 25-year-old Jamaican had started well but by halfway she had been swallowed up and was unable to find an extra gear as she had done most of the season.