With a run that touched immortality, the South African exploded into the public consciousness. Olympic champion. World record holder. Athletics legend. All in the space of 43.03 glorious seconds.
I mention this because Van Niekerk lit a fuse that continues to burn brightly. This weekend, in the nondescript town of Potchefstroom, eight sprinters will line up for arguably the most significant 100m in South African athletics history.
Until three years ago, no local sprinter had ever cracked the 10-second mark. On Friday, four of the starters will have done so, Van Niekerk among them.
It reflects a staggering upswing in standards, more impressive given that Athletics South Africa isn’t known for its vigour or strategic thinking.
Almost all the marketing for next weekend’s national championship has taken place on social media, where Van Niekerk has baited his rivals in affable fashion, threatening to clean up.
The sub-theme has been an attempt to fill up the stadium to ensure that the local heroes receive the support they deserve. Crowd-sourcing indeed.
Former Durban boy and world championship gold medalist Mat Quinn is packing his family in for a weekend alongside the track.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” said Quinn, who has more than a passing interest in events.
His wife Heide still holds the SA 400m record for women (50.05 seconds); a record that Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya will be gunning for as she aims to do the triple in the 400m, 800m and 1 500m.
She’s the defending champion in all three disciplines and will doubtless draw in the crowds with her power running.
Quinn predicts the 100m potentially being the single most exciting race in SA athletics history. The field is top heavy with class.
Olympic finalist Anani Simbine sits top of the pile with a 9.89 SA best set in Budapest last year. With Usain Bolt about to shuffle off, Simbine will be among the world’s best three or four sprinters looking to claim the king’s throne.
The most intriguing participant will be the newest member of the sub-10-second tribe, 21-year-old Thando Roto, who recently became the second-fastest SA sprinter when he pulled out a devastating 9.95 finish in Pretoria.
Every inch of him is built like a 100m sprinter, and although he won’t fancy his chances of toppling Simbine, he will look to shave time off his personal best.
Potch, dry, historically fast and situated at altitude, will offer optimal conditions.
The rest of the field come quickly, so to speak. There’s Henricho Bruintjies (9.97 PB), Van Niekerk (9.98 PB); Anaso Jobodwana (10.10 PB), Gift Leotlela (10.12 PB) and Clarence Munyai (10.20 PB).
For anyone who gets excited by the explosiveness and spectacle of the short sprint, the event is mouth-wateringly appealing.
Not forgetting the 200m either, where all but Roto will be in action. Jobodwana will be the fastest in the field (19.87 PB), but with Van Niekerk having serious ambition in the half-lapper, his own 19.94 best could be under threat.
That’s marginally faster than Simbine’s best ever run (19.95), so you get an idea that the 200m could also be a fantastic affair between men all wearing jet shoes.
Anyone whose tastes are a little more exotic could do worse than cast an eye over the long jump pit, where Olympic silver medallist Luvo Manyonga always threatens something special.
A few weeks ago, he jumped an astounding 8.62m; the best in the world for eight years. To put that into perspective, the gold medallist in Rio cleared 8.38m.
He’s a very special athlete, more so that he’s cast off the demons that once threatened to swamp him.
Mike Powell’s 26-year-old world record (8.95m) is in his cross hairs, a record that would ordinarily seem unassailable but for Manyonga’s potential seeming unbounded. How good might he become when he masters the deeply technical aspects of his craft?
All roads lead to Potchefstroom this week. Anyone lucky enough to be there can marvel at SA’s greatest athlete.
And yet, Van Niekerk’s lightning-heeled disciples may even steal the show from him.