CAPE TOWN– A lot has been said and written about Wayde van Niekerk and his world record run for the gold medal at the Rio Olympics.
His upbringing, his faith, his quaint but strict septuagenarian coach, how his mother was a superbly talented runner herself but whose dreams died on the embers of racial segregation, his bromance with sprint king Usain Bolt, his allegiance to Liverpool FC and the bristling over the issue of ethnicity (Coloured) have all been churned out and poured over in mainstream and social media.
But do we truly and fully comprehend the magnitude of that 43.03 second world record time for the 400 metres? Have we taken the time to digest the sheer scale of Wayde van Niekerk’s athletic achievement and where it places him in terms of ultimate human performance?
It is always said man’s achievements are meant to be broken. But some achievements and records stand tall, stubbornly resisting the advances of modern science, training and technology, a testament to the ages and defying belief and logic.
On 18 October 1968, American Bob Beamon soared through the rarified air of Mexico city beyond what anyone thought humanly possible when he leapt 8.90m (29 ft. 2½ in) in the Olympic long jump final.
It bettered the previous world mark by an astonishing 55 centimetres and led to the creation of the phrase Beamonesque to describe scarcely believable sporting feats.
Beamon’s record stood for a few short months shy of 23 years before compatriot Mike Powell bettered it with a jump of 8.95 metres at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. That mark still stands 25 years on.
Similarly, Michael Johnson set marks that no one had ever seen and few even believed possible at the time.
That signature staccato, upright running style of his first saw him overtake the 200 metre record of Italian Pietro Mennea of 19.72 set way back in 1979. Before Mennea the world record had belonged to Tommie Smith of Black Power salute fame who had held the mark since 1968.
In a golden summer of 1996, Johnson first lowered the mark to 19.66 seconds and then a little over a month later, in a blur of shimmery, golden footwear, blazed his way to a time of 19.32 seconds in the final of the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
It was mind blowing and arguably the stand-out performance of the Games.
Canadian rival Donovan Bailey had won the blue riband 100m in a new world record of 9.84 (an improvement of 100th of a second) but it was the sheer magnitude of the feat which elevated Johnson to the pantheon of the true greats.
More was to come from the American when in August 1999 he blitzed around the track at the World Championships in Sevilla in Spain in 43.18 seconds.
The 400m metre record of 43.29 had been held by Butch Reynolds who set the mark in 1988 but who two years later would be suspended amid a messy doping controversy. Before him, there had been Lee Evans’s 43.86 set in Mexico in 1968.
Twenty years, 11 years and then a further 17 years before Wayde van Niekerk entered the history books in the Maracana stadium in Rio.
Quite clearly such superhuman feats do not happen very often. And even more pointedly, it takes something of a superhuman to surpass such staggering sporting marks.
When Johnson ran 43.18 in 1999 it removed one of the great records in world athletics and raised it to an almost mythical level.
Watch the video of that race and see and listen to the reactions, from Johnson himself, to the commentators, to the crowd, as the enormity of the feat took time to sink in.
Everything about the performance screamed outrageous. The time. The winning margin.
A scroll down the list of track and field records throws up the names of the true greats like Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj who more than a decade and a half later still holds the records for the 1,500m, the fabled mile and the little-run 2,000m.
Jonathan Edwards’ 18.29 m triple jump record from 1995 still stands, as does Javier Sotomayor’s 2.45m high jump mark from 1993.
The two longest standing records in track and field both date back to 1986 when Jürgen Schult East Germany threw the discus 74.08m and the Soviet Union’s Yuriy Sedykh set the hammer throw mark at 86.74m.
So onto young South African Wayde van Niekerk. He announced himself on the world stage when he won the gold at the World Championships in Beijing in a time of 43.48 seconds.
The enduring image of that race is of Van Niekerk left so absolutely physically shattered that he was simply incapable of properly celebrating becoming a world champion.
Since then he has gotten stronger, faster and the records have continued to gather behind his name. He is the first person in history to run faster than 10 seconds for 100 metres, 20 seconds for 200 metres and 44 seconds for 400 metres.
Yes, he is supremely versatile but running sub 10 seconds for the 100m and sub 20 seconds for the 200m is no longer what it used to be. True, not everyone who can run a sub 10 100m can transpose that to a sub 44 seconds over 400 metres.
But a total of 116 men and counting have now run under 10 seconds since official timekeeping records were kept. South Africa had never had a sub 10-second sprinter up until 12 April 2014 when Simon Magakwe dipped at 9.98 seconds. Since then, we can add to that list Akani Simbine, Henricho Bruintjies and Van Niekerk himself.
But it is that run in Rio that has truly marked Wayde van Niekerk out as something special.
His world record run was a truly remarkable feat, made even more so by the fact that he ran blind in lane eight with the knowledge that the two previous Olympic champions would be chasing him down hard all the way.
Johnson’s 200m mark of 19.32 seconds has only ever been bettered by two men and one of them is Usain Bolt who first lowered it fractionally to 19.30 and then shattered it with a mark of 19.19 in 2009 which still stands. Sandwiched in between those Bolt times is Jamaican compatriot Yohan Blake’s 19.26.
It took a once-in-a-lifetime athlete in Usain Bolt – a true physical phenomenon – to erase the greatness of Johnson, not from memory, but from the record books.
Similarly, we should take the time to fully absorb and understand what Wayde van Niekerk achieved on 14 August 2016.
He obliterated Johnson’s 1999 mark by 0.15 seconds – a mark which many had thought simply beyond reach. Incomparable.
Johnson has admitted that he had tried and failed to break the 43 second barrier over 400 metres. Van Niekerk came within a flutter of achieving the seemingly impossible.
Amid all the buzz around Van Niekerk, one snippet of an interview stood out.
During a training camp with Bolt in Jamaica earlier this year, Van Niekerk said the sprint king had urged him to grasp every opportunity.
“That’s why I go out there as hard as I can because I don’t want to let go of opportunities now I’m in the shape that I am in,” Van Niekerk said. “I’m really taking that advice that he gave me and using every single chance I get on the track to better myself.”
This was the veteran Bolt dispensing pearls of wisdom to the Van Niekerk, but perhaps also speaking to his own younger self.
His very name spoke of his destiny, his signature lightning strike pose sent crowds into raptures, his billion dollar smile lit up stadiums, his showmanship revived a flagging sport while his giant frame carried him to glory and ensured that the battered soul of track and field held firm against the ravages of doping.
But we all know that he is now past his best. It is seven years since he set those magical world marks at the World Championships in Berlin. He will never run as fast again. Ahead of the 200m final in Rio he had said he would but he was nowhere close. Father Times catches up even with the greatest of them all. As it did with Muhammad Ali.
Perhaps now Bolt looks back on those races where he eased up well before the line, where those glances left and right, the smiles, the raised finger to the sky robbed him of precious time which may have lowered those world marks even further. We may never know.
Perhaps Bolt was telling Van Niekerk to go hard, to go all out at every opportunity, because one never knows how many world record-breaking races one has within oneself.
A sub 43 second 400 metres beckons Van Niekerk. Sporting immortality is in the offing.
Bolt is still making history but is also fast becoming part of sporting history. Van Niekerk is the here-man of the moment. Johnson alluded to Van Niekerk possibly being the one to take over the mantle from Bolt.
That is some ask. But could you imagine a greater honour? One of the all-time greats of track and field, the one whose timeless record you “massacred” in Rio, holding you up as the man to carry the torch of greatness on from the greatest athlete of them all.
The stage is all yours. Take a bow Wayde van Niekerk.
– African News Agency