By Jonathan Gault
June 2, 2017
BOSTON — The first thing you need to know about Wayde van Niekerk is that he is humble. Even locating him for this story was somewhat of a challenge. After Friday morning’s press conference for this weekend’s adidas Boost Boston Games, most of the athletes and their managers fanned out across the room, waiting to be approached. Van Niekerk tucked himself away in a corner on his phone, content to hide away almost completely obscured by the large black and gold backdrop for the meet he is headlining.
Usain Bolt, the global sprint king to whom the South African van Niekerk is being compared more and more these days, soaks up the spotlight as if it were his birthright. Van Niekerk does not — but when you’re the world record holder and Olympic champion over 400 meters, it finds you anyway.
Bolt and van Niekerk are inextricably linked. Van Niekerk’s crowning achievement, his incredible 43.03 gold-medal winning run in Rio last summer, came just 25 minutes before Bolt won his record third Olympic 100-meter crown (Bolt congratulated van Niekerk after the race). Earlier last year, van Niekerk spent two weeks training with Bolt in Jamaica. And with Bolt on his way out of the sport this summer, many are pointing to the 24-year-old van Niekerk, like Bolt a generational sprint talent, as one of the athletes who will take his place as the face of track & field.
But no one athlete will be able to fill Bolt’s void. In addition to his unprecedented achievements on the track, Bolt had a personality as big as his towering 6-foot-5 frame. And no matter what he does on the track, van Niekerk’s humble, soft-spoken manner is not changing. He was, as always, diplomatic in answering whether he could see himself becoming the face of track & field once Bolt retires.
“I still have a long way to go and a lot of experiences to experience before I can take the throne of Usain,” van Niekerk said. “But I mean it would be a massive honor to continue what he’s done and the legacy that he’s left behind for track and field.”
One title that van Niekerk could claim from Bolt this summer, however, is King of the Sprints. While Bolt is only running the 100 at the World Championships in London in August, van Niekerk is doubling up in the 200 and the 400. Should he win both, he will unquestionably become the world’s best sprinter with Bolt retiring.
If you could grant most hardcore track fans one wish, it’s a showdown between Bolt and van Niekerk at 200 meters in London. Bolt has said repeatedly that it’s not happening. As great as he is, Bolt has never liked practice and training for two events is a lot more work than training for one. His legacy as the greatest sprinter of all time is secure no matter what happens in London, so for Bolt there isn’t much benefit to running the 200 there. The sport, however, is crying out for it, a race that would pit two transcendent talents against each other (they have never raced before) and perhaps serve as a passing of the torch from one generation to the next.
But Bolt doesn’t want it, and van Niekerk’s camp knows better than to say anything controversial when it comes to a legend.
“I will never compare Wayde with Usain because I think both of these people are human beings in their own right,” said Ans Botha, van Niekerk’s 75-year-old coach. “Each one of them has got a different running style and a different event, so I will never compare them.”
Van Niekerk will travel to Kingston next weekend to pay tribute to Bolt and compete at the Racers Grand Prix, but he said he has no plans to convince his friend to take on the 200.
“You don’t tempt lions,” van Niekerk said.
When van Niekerk runs the 200 in London, it will be the first time he’s contested that event at a global championship since he took fourth at World Juniors in Moncton, Canada, as an 18-year-old in 2010. It has been a long path back to running the half-lap event.
Van Niekerk actually began his career as a high jumper — he said his personal best was a very respectable 2.05 or 2.06 meters as a teenager, or about 6-9 — but gave it up once his sprint career began to take off. At the end of 2012, he linked up with Botha, who leads a group in Bloemfontein, and when she took him on, she felt two emotions simultaneously. The first was excitement.
“I knew at that time, this guy has got a very, very special talent,” Botha said.
But the other was fear. To paraphrase Spiderman‘s Ben Parker: with a great athlete comes great responsibility. Botha has been coaching a long time — she began with her own children in 1968 –and knew that she had to be extremely careful if van Niekerk was to capitalize on his vast potential, especially because he joined her with a history of injuries. With that in mind, she built him up slowly and was careful not to add too much to his plate even though van Niekerk has always wanted to run all three sprints — the 100, 200 and 400.
“I promised him [when he began working with me] that the moment when I feel he’s strong enough and he can manage it without putting himself in danger, we can go back to the 200,” said Botha.
Even after van Niekerk won the 400 world title in 2015, becoming the fourth-fastest man in history in Beijing, Botha limited him to only the 400 meters at the 2016 Olympics. Watch the video of that Beijing race and you’ll understand why — after crossing the finish line, he collapsed on the side of the track and ultimately had to be stretchered off and taken to a local hospital for exhaustion. Van Niekerk still races the 400 with reckless abandon but now, at 24, Botha feels that he is finally strong enough, both mentally and physically, to handle both the 200 and the 400.
In typically modest van Niekerk fashion, neither he nor his coach mention specific time goals. But there are some obvious markers in the distance. After running 43.03 last year, breaking 43 seconds for 400 meters is the logical next step. But the 200 is the event in which van Niekerk can improve the most. His 19.90 personal best is the #2 time in the world this year, but he ran that in April in a race in which van Niekerk began letting up with 15 meters to go.
And at that point, van Niekerk was still in phase one of his season, working out with some of Botha’s other athletes in Bloemfontein. Now he’s in phase two, which will see him relocate to his summer base of Gemona, Italy, where he will work one-on-one with Botha to prepare for Worlds.
“In a way, for me, it’s very nice and I enjoy to really bring him up to a level with the group and then we’re alone and I can work with him individually,” Botha said.
Give van Niekerk a few more months of training and some serious competition and he will obliterate 19.90. And then, in the distance, is Bolt’s 19.19 world record, a mark that looked untouchable when he set it back in 2009. Of course, the same was said about Michael Johnson‘s 19.32 from the 1996 Olympics before Bolt blasted past it. And even the man himself has admitted that it is possible.
“If can clean up his technique on the corner, maybe he can do it,” Bolt told Sports Illustrated‘s Tim Layden last year of van Niekerk’s chances at the 200 world record.
But van Niekerk still has a lot of work to do before he can start to think of chasing 19.19. It will be fun to watch him try.
Full interview with van Niekerk