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Bolt's heir apparent ready to take up mantle

South Africa's Wayde van Niekerk exploding out of the blocks at the Rio Olympics. The reigning 400m Olympic gold medallist has his sights on the winning the 200m and 400m events at the world championships in August.
South Africa's Wayde van Niekerk exploding out of the blocks at the Rio Olympics. The reigning 400m Olympic gold medallist has his sights on the winning the 200m and 400m events at the world championships in August.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

LONDON • How do you replace Usain Bolt? In a sport despoiled by drugs and deceit, the Jamaican achieved the remarkable by making people want to believe. Perhaps the only man who can replace him is the one waiting to attempt the incredible at the world championships in August.

Wayde van Niekerk produced the performance of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro even if another Bolt love-in deflected from it. From the outside lane, this lithe South African, coached by a 74-year-old great-grandmother and inspired by Oscar Pistorius pre-scandal, broke Michael Johnson's 17-year-old world record for the 400m.

It soon becomes clear that, while he lacks Bolt's vibrant mischief, he is just as interesting.

So he wants to emulate Michael Johnson's 1995 feat of winning the 200m and 400m at the same world championships.

He also wants to become the greatest athlete in history by breaking records in the 100m, 200m and 400m.

"I am a 100, 200 and 400 athlete so will dream for every record there is," he said. "What sort of athlete would I be if I didn't?"

The 24-year-old trained with Bolt last summer but is most impressed by the rarely-seen depths.

"For a long time I could admire the athlete and entertainer, but get to know him and you realise he is a good, true person," he said of the eight-time Olympic champion.

"I feed off the way you are around people. Little interactions matter more than achievements.

"A lot of people say, 'Wayde, you need to be more of an entertainer'. I am not that type but I see qualities I share with Usain Bolt, and that brings a form of comfort even if it won't sell T-shirts."

In Rio, in one of the more loaded track finals, van Niekerk clocked 43.03sec, knocking some 0.15sec off a world record that had been deemed one of the untouchables.

His immediate aim is to get under the 43-second barrier and put that record beyond a generation.

He recently met Johnson for the first time, which he termed "closure", and said that training with Bolt for three weeks in Jamaica last summer led to a huge shift in psychology.

"I got to realise we are all human beings and that what's possible for him is possible for me," he said.

"His environment is no different to ours. That was a massive confidence-booster. A window opened. Why not achieve what they can? When the clock stopped at 43.03, I had no choice but to think of going under 43. To dream of 43.02 would make no sense."

Van Niekerk was born in Cape Town 11 weeks premature and his mother, Odessa, jokes that he has always been fast. His parents separated when he was 12, but he remains friendly with both his father and step-father.

He tried all sports but excelled at running, where he is now the only man in history to run under 10 seconds for the 100m, under 20 seconds for the 200m and under 44 seconds for the 400m. His preference is the short stuff.

"Speed is why I do track and field. I love going fast. That's where my alter ego takes over. I live for speed. That's the draw for me," he said.

What he does next will be fascinating and important. Athletics needs a hero and so does South Africa. The Springboks rugby team are in disarray and the trailblazing champion of equality, Pistorius, is in prison serving a murder charge.

In other sports, questions about Pistorius would not make it through the public relations filter, but van Niekerk has no issues.

"He was a real fighter as an athlete," he said of a man he trained with in 2012. "One session his limbs were totally covered with blisters, but he still trained as hard as I did.

"As a sports person he was a massive inspiration to me and the whole country, the way he dreamt, wanting to race with the able-bodied guys. It was massive."

The default scandal in athletics is doping, and the inevitable consequence of success is that some will doubt van Niekerk with no evidence other than precedent.

"At first I thought it was upsetting that people would suspect me and put me in that space," he said.

"At the same time I had a conversation and someone told me there is a bright side because it shows how great my achievement was.

"If I was just an average nobody, they would not call me a doper. I still get that comment or two, but I know what I am."

It remains to be seen whether he does the double in London, but Bolt is only scheduled to run the 100m as he edges towards the endgame.

A US$300 million (S$419 million) showdown has been mooted between king and prince. That might be a good time to hand over the baton as a new sensation tries to save athletics all over again.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2017, with the headline 'Bolt's heir apparent ready to take up mantle'. Print Edition | Subscribe