South Africa's Wayde van Niekerk smashed the men's 400 metres world record time at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
South Africa's Wayde van Niekerk smashed the men's 400 metres world record time at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Wayde van Niekerk: A champion was reborn in Potchefstroom

By Mark Keohane Time of article published Nov 6, 2020

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ONE of the most striking sporting visuals I saw was in 2000, just before the Summer Olympics in Australia. It was haunting in its beauty. Ian Thorpe was the golden child of Australian swimming.

His feet were the size of flippers and he and athlete Cathy Freeman were the rage.

So much was expected of the duo and both delivered in winning gold medals in the pool and on the track, respectively.

The image I am referring to was one taken of Thorpe swimming at 4am at the Olympic Aquatic Centre. It was before the Olympics.

Everything was dark and the only lane that was lit up was the one Thorpe was using.

The picture was accompanied with a brief caption that spoke to all of Australia. It read something like: “While we are sleeping, he is training to win us gold.”

The image was so powerful that it didn’t need a caption.

Whenever I need some inspiration and a “pick me up”, I think of that image of Thorpe and I watch the highlights of Chad le Clos beating Michael Phelps at the 2012 Olympics.

It was the first time the iconic US swimmer was beaten in the 200m butterfly. Hell, it is so inspiring,

I just watched it again.

I also watch Wayde van Niekerk breaking Michael Johnson’s 400m record at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. And, yes, I just watched that race again.

Those two nights, four years apart, were just spectacular.

Le Clos has been fortunate in his career in not suffering serious injury.

Not so Van Niekerk, who tore knee ligaments in the most freakish of accidents playing a celebrity touch rugby match at Newlands. It was an injury that threatened to end his career and, at the time, ruled him out of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

Then Covid-19 struck the world and Van Niekerk was given a sporting lifeline. The Olympics was postponed by a year and Van Niekerk was able to start the long road back to sprinting.

Van Niekerk is the only athlete to run under 44 seconds in the 400m, under 20 seconds in the 200m and under 10 seconds for the 100m. He also holds the record for the 300m.

He is the greatest sprinting athlete in the history of athletics because he has done it in every distance.

It is why the 100m and 200m legend Usain Bolt anointed Van Niekerk as the poster boy of world athletics.

On Tuesday this week Van Niekerk finally returned to the track in a competitive race in Potchefstroom. His comeback initially was dire, with him shearing the left start block. It forced Van Niekerk to slip, but he recovered to win in 45.92 seconds.

Van Niekerk in 2016 won gold at the Olympics in 43.03 and then the talk was that he would be the first athlete to ever go under 43 seconds in the 400m.

That night seems a lifetime away now. Van Niekerk has to break 44.90 seconds to qualify for the 2021 Olympics. He should get there. No, he WILL get there.

And just being there is an achievement that arguably is greater achievement than his 43.03 world record.

We always celebrate our sporting heroes for the records, the gold medals, the world championship titles and the world cups.

But there is so much more than game day to them.

Van Niekerk’s last two years have been spent learning how to walk again in sprinting terms.

When he wins gold in Tokyo, remember Tuesday, November 3 in Potchefstroom because that race was when an Olympic champion was reborn.

His race in Potchefstroom is, for me, the South African sporting story of the year.

@mark_keohane

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