(Reuters) – Wayde van Niekerk, the athlete identified by Usain Bolt as the next trailblazer for global athletics, was adamant on Wednesday that he was not afraid to take over the responsibility of being the face of his sport.
The day after Bolt had lavished him with praise, the South African Van Niekerk told reporters that he was not intimidated by the expectations being heaped upon him before the World Athletics Championships, which start in London on Friday.
It is perfectly possible that the 25-year-old could upstage Bolt in the Jamaican’s final championship by pulling off a 200 metres/400 meters double that has not been achieved since Michael Johnson in Gothenburg in 1995.
Van Niekerk is also being tipped to threaten the 400m world record of 43.03 seconds that he took from Johnson at the Olympic Games last year and warned at a news conference in London on Wednesday that he was “in the best shape I could be” to deliver again.
“It’s one thing someone saying I can be the next big thing,” Van Niekerk said of Bolt’s words of praise. “But it’s another thing working toward that greatness.
“I’m not intimidated (by the responsibility), you can’t be. This is track and field, this is a dream I need to fight for — and I need to fight for it as hard as I can.”
Van Niekerk joked that he was expecting an invoice from Bolt for all the advice and encouragement the peerless sprinter had given him.
On Tuesday, the Jamaican had told reporters: “Wayde van Niekerk is proving he is a world star. He has broken the 400m world record, ran the fastest 300m ever, and now he’s doing the 200m also. For me, he’s proving that he can step up to the plate.”
It left the South African responding: “All of us have a lot of respect for Usain and have gained motivation from what’s he’s done for track and field. So it’s a massive honor for me to be mentioned in the light that I am right now.
“I need to accept it and take the responsibility.
“It’s definitely a good space to be in. Good to see him supporting me as an athlete and backing me as the athlete I am becoming. It shows that I’m moving in a positive direction as an athlete.”
Van Niekerk may not have the sparkling personality that Bolt possesses although, as he demonstrated in an assured performance in front of the world’s media here in the shadow of the London Stadium, he’s clearly growing more comfortable in the limelight.
And he has a string to his bow that even Bolt does not possess as the only man to have broken 10 seconds for 100m, 20 seconds for 200m and 44 seconds for 400m and his options for the future have left him and his remarkable 75-year-old coach Ans Botha, a great grandmother, spoilt for choice.
“It’s still something that we’re working on every day,” said Van Niekerk, when asked whether he might shift more in the future to the 100m and 200m events that have always been Bolt’s domain rather than the one-lap event.
“Coach and I have daily moments when we’re still deciding and sometimes disagreeing on the path forward because things are looking positive and bright when you look at all three events.
“I love competing and that’s what makes me go faster. I’m 25 years old and I’ve still a lot of areas to work on, a lot of fine tuning to do even to reach the heights Usain has in the 100 and 200.
“Yes, I’ve reached heights that no-one else has in the 400 but at the same time I’m going to go out there and build a total new image of who I am and what I believe in.
“If that means I put up some great times in the 100, 200 and 400, then I’ll know I’ve achieved the goals I want to as an athlete.”
(Reporting by Ian Chadband; Editing by Toby Davis)