Feature26 Jul 2015

Van Niekerk aims to become South Africa's first world 400m champion


Wayde van Niekerk at the 2015 IAAF Diamond League meeting in London (© Kirby Lee)

There was a moment halfway through the men’s 400m on the second day of the IAAF Diamond League meeting in London on Saturday when Wayde van Niekerk must have wondered what was going on.

Running in lane five, the South African had Botswana's Isaac Makwala on his inside and US champion David Verburg ahead in lane six. As they approached the turn into the bend, Makwala had already eaten up the stagger and shot two metres past, while Verburg was pulling away too.

By comparison, van Niekerk appeared to be running in sand.

A lesser athlete might have panicked and tightened. But van Niekerk – who’d beaten Olympic champion Kirani James in his previous race – is no longer a lesser athlete.

Timing his effort to perfection, he moved on to Makwala’s shoulder as they entered the straight and strode past, his two opponents unable to match his finishing kick as they paid for their early pace and were engulfed by a wave of lactic acid.

If the speed of his Paris victory, when he became the first African in history to break 44 seconds, announced his burgeoning talent to the world, perhaps it was the measured manner of this London win that most clearly proved Wayde van Niekerk will be a genuine contender for gold at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing next month.

By comparison with Paris, Saturday’s winning time of 44.63 looks decidedly modest. But that hardly worried the level-headed 23-year-old.

“I just came here wanting to win,” he said afterwards, his tired body hung over the mixed zone barriers in London’s Olympic Stadium.

“I saw them both go past on the back straight. They looked quite strong but I tried to focus on my own race. I tried my best to stay with them. I didn’t want to fall back in the crowd too much and, when it came to the last 100, I just tried to push as hard as possible.

“This was my last Diamond League race before the World Championships so I just wanted to finish it with a good time and feel confident.”

He has every reason too, for van Niekerk will head back to his European training base in Gemona, Italy, knowing that in his past two races he has beaten the two men who denied him major titles in 2014, the two men who sit just above him on this year’s world lists.

After finishing second to James at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow last summer, his revenge in Paris certainly raised eyebrows, not least because he ran an African record of 43.96 in the process.

But that record lasted just 24 hours before Makwala snatched it out of his hands by running 43.72 in the Swiss town of La Chaux-de-Fonds.

Makwala had beaten van Niekerk to take the African title last year, but his Swiss time came out of the blue after six races this season in which he had yet to break 45 seconds.

Van Niekerk still unbeaten in 2015

Van Niekerk, on the other hand, had won the South African title and IAAF Diamond League races in New York and Paris among seven straight one-lap victories, plus he had broken the African 300m best in Birmingham back in June. 

Amid talk of an emerging African rivalry, the London race was billed as something of a grudge match between the two.

However, van Niekerk is keen to shrug off such notions, describing Makwala as more of a fellow traveller than a foe. 

“Every race is about winning so I think all of us went there wanting to win,” he said. “To me, it’s not really about Isaac and myself.

“Isaac is a classy athlete. We see each other as friends off the track so it’s good seeing another athlete doing well and trying to reach his goal. We all have a dream and it’s definitely nice seeing him chasing his.

“We both have our goals and our dreams. If he gets there before me I’m happy for him, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to lay back and rest.”

In fact, van Niekerk, who describes his undefeated season over all distances so far as “a blessing”, has been working harder than ever, thankful to be free of injuries after enduring hamstring problems throughout 2011 and 2012, followed by persistent niggles that only cleared up properly in 2014.

At home, he is a marketing student at Blomfontein’s University of the Free State and trains with coach Ans Botha and a “quite small, but focused and helpful” group that includes his best friend, former African junior 100m champion Gideon Trotter.

South Africa's new wave of talent

Both athletes are part of an exciting new wave of South African athletes already making their mark on the world stage.

The fields in London alone included 400m hurdlers LJ van Zyl and Cornel Fredericks plus javelin thrower Sunette Viljoen and the emerging 200m talent Anaso Jobodwana, not to mention the 2008 world indoor long jump champion Godfrey Mokoena.

It’s a new generation that van Niekerk feels honoured to be part of.

“I can’t really speak for every other athlete in South Africa but it’s a very, very exciting time to see the other athletes coming up and making the country proud.”

“We rub off on each other and we try to inspire one another and spur each other on to be part of this.”

The son of former athletes once denied the chance to compete internationally by the boycott of the apartheid regime that existed in South Africa prior to 1990, Van Niekerk has what he described as “sporty genes” and dedicates his performances to his parents who are “with me every step that I take”.

Not surprisingly, he is also keenly aware of what a world medal would mean to his country.

“I think it would be quite big for my country as a whole because we’ve got quite a lot of potential, so it’s good showing everyone that we can do it,” he said. “Like every other athlete going to Beijing, we all want to go for a medal, and my goal is that as well, to get a medal.

“But the world champs is a competition of its own, unlike the Diamond League. I have to be ready for that.”

To that end he now heads back to his “calm” retreat in Gemona for a week’s rest before the hard training kicks in again.

As for Rio and next year’s Olympic Games, van Niekerk prefers to take it one step at a time. After all, the measured approach is starting to become his trademark.

"I’m not sure,” he said. “It’s still a long way off. I’ll see what the future holds.”

Matthew Brown for the IAAF