When Usain Bolt calls time on his incredible career at the world championships in London this summer, there will be some very large, and probably golden, shoes for another athlete to fill. If all goes to plan, that athlete could well be Wayde van Niekerk.
At last year’s Rio Olympics the 24-year-old South African stunned the competition by not only winning the 400m final from lane eight – the outside track no-one wants to run in – but also breaking Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record in the process. Van Niekerk is also the only man in history to run the 100m in under 10sec, the 200m in under 20sec and the 400m in under 44sec. Even Bolt and Johnson didn’t manage the feat.
This year Van Niekerk will compete in both the 200m and 400m at the London world championships, attempting to win a double that has only been achieved by Johnson in the past.
Ahead of what could be a massive summer, Coach spoke to Van Niekerk at the launch of the Adidas PureBOOST DPR trainer in Berlin. The interview took place just a few weeks after the world championships schedule had been confirmed, allowing Van Niekerk to have a shot at the 200m/400m double, so the demands of attempting both were at the forefront of the his mind.
“It’s going to be tough,” he admits. “It’s double the work and double the effort, but I’m excited for the challenge. It will be the first time I’ve done it. We will talk afterwards and I’ll tell you if I enjoyed it or not!”
The 200m could see Van Niekerk compete against Bolt, although the Jamaican has suggested he might only run the 100m in London. Bolt has been an inspiration for Van Niekerk, and he even predicted that the South African would do something special at last year’s Olympics.
“We chatted in Jamaica and he said he really believed I could break the world record in the 400m. Getting such high praise from such a great athlete was a massive confidence booster for me.”
Athletes always talk about running their own race and not reacting to what others are doing, but few have ever put that into practice so clearly as Van Niekerk in the Rio Olympics 400m final. Starting in the outside lane, far from the preferred middle lanes, he never even saw his competition as he stormed to victory, becoming the first man to win Olympic gold from lane eight.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” says Van Niekerk. “Not being able to see the competition, just going out there and running my own race – I had no other choice. You can’’t be waiting for anyone to catch up with you!”
Although he’s the reigning Olympic and world champion over 400m, it’s a distance that Van Niekerk only really started competing in recently.
“I’m a lover of the 100m and 200m. It was only due to injury that I ended up doing 400m about four or five years ago. I’m actually still a newbie to the 400m.”
Having broken Johnson’s 400m record (as a newbie, remember), next on Van Niekerk’s hit-list could be Bolt’s 200m benchmark.
“We’ll see,” he laughs. “I have so much more work to do to get there. We never know – if you had asked me about getting the 400 record last year I would have given you the same answer!”
Led by Bolt, Jamaica have dominated the sprint races at recent Olympics and world championships, but Van Niekerk hopes to spearhead a similar period of success for South Africa.
“We have so much potential, but only we as a country and individuals can create that powerhouse. We have to control the controllables. For me, I want to make myself a powerhouse in track and field. That’s the best that I can do as an athlete.
“Track and field still needs so much growth in our country. The support is slowly but surely growing. People in South Africa love sport. We just need to give them a reason to come out in numbers and back us.”
Should Van Niekerk complete the 200m/400m double in London he will establish himself as the new king of track and field. That will bring with it a whole new level of pressure even for an Olympic champion, but the South African has no fears about that.
“Is there ever no pressure?” says Van Niekerk. “A few years ago when I wasn’t even close to being the world’s number one, there was so much pressure to get up there. Now that I’m here I’m just going to enjoy the moment.”
The new Adidas PureBOOST DPR is available at adidas.co.uk, £109.95.