London, United Kingdom | AFP | Wayde van Niekerk has been hailed as the next poster boy for global track and field, and the softly-spoken South African admits he’s taking on board as much as he can from the outgoing Usain Bolt.
Although lacking the showman’s pizzaz of Bolt, who has accrued eight Olympic and 11 world gold medals, Van Niekerk has showed his worth on the track, shattering Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record from lane eight when adding the Olympic 400m title to his world crown last year.
Coached by ‘Auntie’ Ans Botha, aged 74, Van Niekerk remains humble and in awe of what Bolt has done for athletics.
“It’s a massive honour to be able to learn and rub shoulders with a great like Usain,” the 25-year-old said ahead of the August 4-13 IAAF World Championships in London.
“His impact on the sport alone has been massive and now I’m having an opportunity to build a small relationship with him as I continue my journey. It’s great to learn from these guys.
“It’s definitely a good space to be in,” he said. “It’s good to see the guys supporting me as an athlete and backing the athlete that I’m becoming and also the belief I’m receiving in what I’m doing. It shows I’m moving in a positive direction as an athlete.”
Bolt has consistently named the South African as his natural successor on the track, and Van Niekerk said: “All of us have a lot of respect for Usain Bolt and all of us have gained a lot of inspiration and motivation from what he’s done for track and field.
“It’s a massive honour being mentioned in the light I am right now. It’s definitely an area that I need to accept, take the responsibility and obviously take the backing that I get.”
– Work to reach Bolt heights –
Van Nierkerk added: “As an athlete, I know I’ve got so much good to do, I’m 25 years old and I have a lot of areas to work on and finetuning to do before reaching the heights Usain reached in the 100 and 200m.
“I’m going to go out there and put out a total new image to who I am and what I believe in, and my gifts and my talents.
“If that means putting out some great times in the 100, 200 and 400m, then I know I’ve achieved the goals I want to do as an athlete.”
Van Niekerk’s potential cannot be underestimated and he has been on fire this season, having run personal bests in the 100m (9.94sec) and 200m (19.84) last month, and also setting a new world best time of 30.81sec in the rarely-run 300m in Ostrava — again beating Johnson’s previous best.
The South African said he had finally broken the ice with the American.
“I met him at the Laureaus awards. It was nice to finally meet him. It was a bit awkward at the beginning, but obviously getting to know him and being in a comfortable environment with him really made the situation so much more relaxed.
“These things happen. It’s the sport and it’s good for track and field and I think he would agree with me if I say we need this to happen to see track and field go from where it is to great heights,” he said, adding: “Yes, he did congratulate me!”
Van Niekerk will not have the pleasure of racing against Bolt, who has chosen to compete in just the 100m and 4x100m relay in London, while the South African attempts an ambitious 200-400m double.
“I don’t think you can’t really use the word ‘disappointed’,” he said of not getting to race against the towering Jamaican.
“It’s just not my time as a competitor to compete against him, but that doesn’t mean I can’t go out there and do great things.
“It’s time for us to honour Usain for what he’s done.”