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.