Firstly, the most important question: how is the family?
“We’re all good,” Wayde van Niekerk tells Stats Perform. “Most importantly, everyone is very healthy. Everyone is starting to invest now in exercises and more healthy decisions so that’s actually nice to see and something that’s a positive out of our current circumstances.”
Looking for positives in the coronavirus pandemic can be tough. Then again, Van Niekerk has never been one to shirk a challenge. The 400 metre Olympic champion, the first man in history to run a single lap of the track faster than Michael Johnson, the figure tipped by Usain Bolt himself to usurp the Jamaican great as the poster-boy of athletics, has endured a sort of self-isolation from the wider public consciousness over the past couple of years.
Van Niekerk’s victory at the 2016 Rio Olympics was done in a world-record time of 43.03, beating Johnson’s 17-year best and coming agonisingly close to the magic 43-second barrier. A year later, in the seldom-run 300m, he eclipsed Johnson and Bolt’s best times to set a record 30.81 in Ostrava, eight days after a personal best of 9.94 in the 100m.
In so doing, Van Niekerk became the first sprinter in history to break the 10-second, 20-second, 31-second and 44-second barriers for the 100m, 200m, 300m and 400m, respectively. At the World Championships in London in August 2017, he took silver in the 200m and gold in the 400m, defending that title from Beijing two years earlier. Not bad for a man given 24 hours to live when he was born 11 weeks prematurely, who spent his first two weeks of life in intensive care, and who was bullied as a scrawny schoolboy.
Then, in a charity touch rugby match in October 2017, Van Niekerk suffered medial and lateral tears of the meniscus and a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He needed surgery. The 2018 season was written off, meaning he missed the Commonwealth Games. After a winning return in Bloemfontein some 17 months later, Van Niekerk “pushed a bit too hard” and bruised a bone in his knee in training. More months off the track followed; there would be no third world title in a row.
“Missing out on the Commonwealths, I could get over it, but a world champs was very difficult,” he admits.
“I got some time to train with the guys in Europe and I was basically prepping for the World Championships, so picking up the bone bruise and then still trying to work towards getting fitness but not quite getting there and seeing off the team and greeting everyone was quite an emotional experience. But it definitely did spark a massive hunger inside me and I think, for myself, I use that as motivation to make sure that when I get a chance again, I’m not going to take it for granted.”
That chance was supposed to be 2020, and Tokyo. “I’ve entered this year as a normal season, so I felt I was ready to compete, I felt I was ready to run. I was training and working as any other year. I made decisions as if I’m about to do a season as usual, so mentally and physically my mind and heart was there.”
Then came COVID-19. As sporting events around the world were pushed back or cancelled, the IOC dithered over moving the Olympics, leaving athletes to continue preparations under clouds of uncertainty. It was particularly worrying for Van Niekerk: as social distancing became the norm in countries across the globe, he was obliged to keep up his training programme despite his coach, 77-year-old Ans Botha, being at risk of serious illness if infected.
“It was definitely scary,” he says. “It was kind of difficult to communicate with her each and every day and she was right there in front of me. I did not know how to communicate with coach and how to interact with coach knowing how easily she could get affected.
“At that moment, we saw how quickly it was spreading in China and Italy and countries in Europe and we knew it wouldn’t be long before it entered our country. That kind of scared me: it’s an invisible virus which travels, so I wouldn’t even know I’m interacting with coach and spreading the virus to her, so I’m glad she’s safe now and can stay away from harm so that, when we get back to work, she’ll be ready and healthy.”
On March 24, organisers acted at last, postponing the Games until July 23 next year. For many athletes, it was a disheartening blow; for Van Nierkerk, it was “definitely a relief”.
“My coach being quite elderly makes it quite difficult for me to focus only on training, knowing that I’m around her all the time and how easily the virus can spread and how quickly it attacks the elderly. It definitely did take a bit of a weight off my shoulders in terms of that,” he says.
“Also, we weren’t mentally training the way we would love to. I guess the fact the Olympics has been shifted takes a bit of stress off us, and now we can work on keeping our social distancing and staying away from spreading the virus and making sure we kill this thing so we can go back to life as we know it.
“I don’t have any issues with the decisions that were made. Working towards next season and what’s left of this season, I want to make sure I’m in good shape and use it as building blocks for the Olympics next year. I see it as a healthy year for myself, where I can use it for building and strengthening that I still believe I need to work on.”
South Africa won praise for a proactive approach to containing the spread of coronavirus, with swift lockdown measures helping to keep confirmed cases below 2,000 and deaths in single figures as of April 5. Van Niekerk has been training at home – “I’m very privileged and blessed,” he says, to have a large back garden and gym to use – and he supports the government’s approach. “I think we’ve also seen a positive reaction to it – a lot of people are obedient to it, a lot of people are distancing themselves from society and from spreading the virus, so I see it as positive decisions that our country’s leaders have made.”
After so much time out through injury, there is still frustration at having to wait another year for the Olympics, but Van Niekerk, clearly, is not one for negativity. Running at unofficial meets early this year over 100m and 200m, including back home in Bloemfontein, were “quite fun”, he says. “Seeing that I still have the speed and still have the strength gave me quite a bit of a boost, and it just gave me a lot of hunger to keep working harder and more efficiently, so that I can be in the best shape for the Olympics. I’m basically just trying to continue off that so I can be in the best shape of my life in Tokyo.”
The immediate goal might be Olympics gold, but Van Niekerk may have more than a medal collection in his sights. He has spoken of wanting to leave a legacy and, while going sub-43 over 400m is the obvious target, his love of the shorter races points at a possible bid for sprinting’s triple crown. Bolt was king of the 100m and 200m; Johnson ruled from the half-lap to the 400m. To conquer all three would set Van Niekerk apart.
It’s a remarkable dream, but Van Niekerk, inspired by Liverpool’s Premier League title charge and watching friends and family win the Rugby World Cup last year, is a remarkable athlete.
His is a sport where dozens of people put in hundreds of hours of work often just so one person has one chance of glory, be it with a jump, a throw, or a dash to the line. But he remembers the challenges life threw at him; he remembers those who were with him from those tough beginnings and all the way to August 15, 2016, where one lap of the track in Rio changed his world. And he has never forgotten them. He looks back now not just on the time on the clock or the medal around his neck, but on the people who were there to share it all.
He recalled: “It was definitely… I was quite nervous. But I felt comfortable, I felt confident in myself. I had an amazing season before, put up some great times. But coming to a Games itself, you need to put in that hard work to make sure that you execute what you’ve worked for. During that process, it was just about staying calm, staying composed, controlling the controllables and executing the race as best I can.
“Breaking the world record itself was amazing. I had my family over there and it was amazing and a great way to end my competition, knowing they were there, spending time with them and celebrating with them. Also, the team: my coach, my management team, my sponsors and so on, it was a great experience knowing I could break the world record and honour everyone associated with me for their hard work and sacrifices they put in to put me where I am today. I’ll forever be grateful for it.
“But my mind and my heart are honestly focused on the future and my legacy. It’s never been a secret that I want to go sub-43 and it’s also no secret how much I love the 100 and 200, so I definitely want to start investing in growth, in every single event that I do, and improve myself every year until the day I retire and whatever legacy comes from that. That’s where my focus is at: just to grow and be up there with the greats in the world.”