The pride in the eyes of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) president Lord Sebastian Coe, a two-time Olympic gold medallist, was there for all to see when he told the reporters during his whistle-stop trip to the Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar last month that it is only at the IAAF Worlds that a stadium roof will have the flags of 200 participating countries.
Yet, with Usain ‘does-he-need-an-intro’ Bolt announcing his intention to quit track and field competition at the end of the IAAF World Championships 2017, distance runner Mo Farah in his final season and Russian athletics in a numbing disarray; world athletics can do with fresh young faces that can captivate the world’s sports fans.
It is in this scenario that South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk has put his hand up to be identified as the next big superstar of world athletics. What more? The IAAF has nudged him along by agreeing to a schedule change that will allow him to eye the rare double of 200m and 400m in London.
The original schedule meant that he would have to run the 200m heats a short while before the 400m final but the IAAF agreed to redraw the times for the two events to allow the 25-year-old South African try and grab world attention in a more telling manner than he was afforded when he broke Michael Johnson’s world record in winning gold at Rio in 43.03 seconds.
Clearly, the IAAF is aware that it faces immense competition for eyeballs from several other sports — many traditional and some more recent vintage, besides the knowledge that track and field sport needs new heroes to project, new faces that gain acceptability among sports fans and hold the athletics banner aloft.
The mandarins got a hint of his potential to garner fans when he became the first man to win the Olympic 400m gold, running in lane eight. Johnson, whose record stood for 17 years, called van Niekerk’s sprint in the second half as a massacre. Bolt, who trained with the South African in Jamaica ahead of the Olympic Games, said he was not surprised by the world record effort.
The Cape Town resident is some distance from having a worldwide following, but with IAAF egging him on, the World Championships may well be the launchpad for his reign. A double gold will make him well-known as the only one who has run the 100m inside 10 seconds, the 200m inside 20 seconds and the 400m inside 44 seconds.
Come to think of it, it was nothing short of a miracle that van Niekerk could sprint. Since he was prematurely born, his mother Odessa Swarts was told that if he survived the first 24 hours, there was a good possibility that he would suffer a disability. He also had to deal with his parents parting ways when he was 12.
As a teenager, van Niekerk started off as 100-200 specialist but his shift to the one-lap event was a masterstroke, especially at a time when Bolt was reigning supreme. But now, as Michael Johnson, the last man who did the unusual 200-400m double at the Olympic Games in 1996, said, van Niekerk could be the next star. And some even predict the sprint treble for him soon.
Yet, it remains to be seen how he handles such adulation and stress. On the face of it, he appears rooted — his coach, 76-year-old Anna Botha, has ensured that the only time his feet are not on ground is when he is gliding on the track — and that augurs well for him. If he is consumed by a desire to go for the world records rather than just the titles, he could be leaving himself with a lot to achieve.
The good thing is that he is acutely aware of the build-up. And in the few interviews that we have got to read of his, he makes it clear that he would wait and watch where athletics wants to go with its image. Yet, he also makes it known that he hopes to be one of the bigger names going forward and that he would be able to project a great image for South Arica.
His respect for Bolt and the inspirational legacy that he will leave when he quits the competition marks him as a worthy successor in-waiting rather than a pretender who makes vain boasts about usurping the champion’s place in the firmament. It is this quality, combined with his speed on track, that will endear him to the masses and perhaps cede him some mindspace.
A little bit of help — in rejigging the schedule, especially since Bolt decided against running the 200m on his final appearance at the IAAF Worlds — may well be what the doctor ordered. And the boy who was born a few weeks premature has the potential and the hunger to take the double crown and be ready to rule the world of sprints as its natural king.
Updated Date: Aug 03, 2017 17:05 PM