“As a son you always want to make your mother proud,” Wayde van Niekerk tells me, as we sit in a London hotel room, a stone’s throw away from the stadium he watched eagerly on television as a 20-year-old, full of hope and ambition, five years ago. The World and Olympic 400m champion smiles shyly, and stretches back in his chair. “I think that’s what drives me, wanting to do great things to see that smile on my mother’s face. It’s a way, I guess, of thanking her for raising me and sharing my dreams.”
In particular, it was the Olympics that allowed them to dream together, van Niekerk and his mother Odessa Swarts. It was watching the Olympics unfold in 2012, which spurred van Niekerk to tell his mother that he would both compete at the Rio Games and win a medal in four years. Such was his obsession that for four years his email address even contained the phrase ‘rio2016’. And it was the Olympics, where he scorched to gold in a record 43.03s, obliterating Michael Johnson’s time which had stood for 17 long years, where his dreams came true. But that night in Rio, it was not just van Niekerk’s dreams which were fulfilled, but those of his mother’s own career, one which had never had the opportunity to flourish.
Today, van Niekerk is an athlete slowly being thrust towards superstardom. Not quite yet a household name in the same breath as Usain Bolt, but a man being groomed by sport’s marketing giants as the Jamaican’s successor. At the IAAF World Championships this fortnight, he aims to become the first man since Johnson in 1995 to complete the 200m/400m double.
Few would bet against him. He added Johnson’s 300m world record to his growing collection in June, and holds the world’s leading 400m time of 43.62, plus the second best 200m time. With Bolt stepping aside in the latter, the field is wide open.
But with every victory and record he collects, van Niekerk helps erase some of the legacy that apartheid-era South Africa left on his family. As a teenager, Swarts was too a champion sprinter, who idolised Florence Griffiths-Joyner as she watched the grainy footage of the 1988 Seoul Olympics on the family television. But as a black woman, she was forbidden both from competing against the white athletes in her country, and competing internationally.
“We had two different athletics federations back then,” she tells me from her home in Bloemfontein. “One for blacks and one for whites. And our records and times were never acknowledged. We had no professional coaches, those were for white athletes, we just had our schoolteachers. The only way we could measure ourselves and where we stood on a national level, was through the times the newspapers said the white athletes were running. Some of their races were televised too. So we’d try and work out if we were on par with them.”
Some black athletes fled South Africa and sought citizenship abroad, to have the chance to fulfil their talent and compete on the global stage. But as the daughter of a single mother, who lacked even the money to buy her running spikes, meaning she relied on charity from teachers who spotted her potential, leaving the country was out of the question.
“It was difficult back then because there was nothing to work towards, nothing you could hope of becoming one day in sports,” Swarts says. “You knew that running at an Olympics or World Championships was never possible so almost to protect yourself, you never allowed yourself to dream of what could have been.”
By the time apartheid finally ended in the early 1990s, Swarts was already married and had given birth to Wayde. The challenge of bringing up a young son, and providing for her family meant that resuming her athletics career was no longer an option. “I’ve never felt bitter,” she says. “It’s just made me want to give Wayde each and every opportunity, because I never had that chance. He’s been able to have dreams. The past has made South Africa what it is today, and knowing what the parents went through makes our young athletes work harder to show the world that we have talent.”
However, van Niekerk’s heritage remains a divisive issue within South Africa, a legacy of the deep-rooted racial tension which lingers more than two decades post-apartheid. In the aftermath of Rio, for every fan who celebrated his success, others criticized what they perceived as a decision not to acknowledge his race and the struggles his parents faced as black South Africans in post-race interviews.
Van Niekerk himself is uneasy with openly discussing the subject with the media. His agent Peet van Zyl, a former hurdler, is keen to avoid any interviews deemed ‘politically motivated’. When I raise the subject, van Niekerk replies quietly that he’s keen to represent himself as an athlete for ‘all of South Africa.’
“I’m a South African athlete and my main appreciation is for what I’ve contributed to the whole country,” he says. “I’m just glad to be one of the guys breaking barriers for other South Africa athletes to believe in ourselves. We’ve got a great generation coming through with a lot of potential.”
His mother believes it’s not his responsibility to fly the flag only for black South Africans. “The whole fight over Wayde was a bit disappointing,” she says. “Wayde goes out and represents his country. You don’t go out and represent a race. I know a lot of people feel he is not acknowledging that he’s coloured, but that’s not what it’s about.”
But van Niekerk is used to facing adversity, almost from birth. He was born 29 weeks premature and doctors initially believed that he would be profoundly disabled. Small and skinny as a child, he was bullied regularly at school, but his size belied a deep inner stoicism.
Swarts remembers a time when she found him being knocked to the ground and his textbooks thrown from his bag. “I remember approaching these boys and wanting to fight them. And he just latched onto my arm, and said, ‘Mummy, can you believe these guys? They’re not even worth wasting your energy on.’ I’d always been under the impression that Wayde allowed people to bully him. But by walking away he was actually much stronger than them.”
A competitive child, whose natural running style and explosive speed meant he excelled at track and field, van Niekerk recalls how a tough school life shaped him as a competitor. “I had a lot of bad luck at school,” he says. “I got shoved around a lot. But while people thought they could break me, the bullying made me stronger. I’ve always felt I can stand in my blocks against any athlete in the world, whether they’re bigger or if they’ve beaten me in the past, and not feel intimidated.”
Despite being scouted for his sprinting talent, he explains how he gave up athletics at the age of 11 to pursue other sports ranging from squash to tennis, cricket and soccer. His mother was secretly deeply disappointed, but delighted when he returned to the track at 16, inspired by watching boys in his school year training for competitions. “I think a switch just went on again, and the hunger came back,” he remembers. “The memories returned when I was younger, and I remembered how much I enjoyed it.”
But the results did not come immediately. At 16, he finished 8th in his school 100m final. Swarts recalls him telling her, ‘I’m going to work harder, and I’ll be much better than these guys next year.’ Two years later he was national champion at 100m and 200m, and finished fourth in the World Junior Championships.
“That was a bit of a wake-up call,” he admits. “I was very raw, getting exposed to international competition for the first time. But I began taking it more seriously. And then in 2012, I started to think that perhaps I had the talent to make the final of a senior competition. It’s gone from there, I enjoy challenges.”
Largely a 100m and 200m runner, his switch to the 400m, the event which has made him globally famous as arguably the greatest of all time over the distance, happened completely by chance. “I was injured a few years ago, and my coach said she’d prefer for me to switch to the 400m programme, in order for my body to heal,” he says. “I never started out as a 400m runner!”
The coach in question is Tammie Ans, the gruffly spoken, white-haired 75 year old, who has masterminded van Niekerk’s remarkable talent since he was a junior. The two have a mother-son relationship with Ans learning to put up with van Niekerk’s music taste, while strictly monitoring and regulating his off-track activities. “She’s never had an athlete teasing her as much as I do,” van Niekerk grins. “She’s had to get used to it. But I’ve been her ideal athlete on the 400m, she absolutely loves the 400m. For me I’m not a big fan of it, the feeling in your body when you cross the finish line. It makes you want to retire.”
Van Niekerk grimaces and smiles. He’s jesting about retiring, but while he’s achieved substantial success in the longest sprint, his real passion is for the 100m and 200m, which has proved something of a conundrum. “The 400m has brought me to where I am today so I’d be stupid to let it go, but at the same time I wish I could leave it,” he says. “Coach and I are trying to find a centre. She’s spoiled me this year, letting me do a few 100s and 200s over the season.”
With Bolt’s imminent retirement, van Niekerk’s management team would be happy to see their man attempt to fill the Jamaican’s considerable shoes in track and field’s blue riband event. Rumours abound that he may run the 100m at next year’s Commonwealth Games. But while journalists, and even Bolt himself, are keen to brand him as the next poster boy of athletics, the softly spoken van Niekerk will be doing things his way.
“I’m not after recognition, being spotted by people everywhere I go,” he says. “That’s not something which motivates me. I want to grow as an athlete. This year I started my 400m season faster than ever in the past. That’s what excites me. I’m 25 and I have lot of fine-tuning to do. But as a person I haven’t changed.”
Swarts would not have it any other way. “Life has been difficult for him since breaking the world record. People do forget at times that he’s just human and sometimes he needs time to himself. But he’s achieving things that we never would have thought. The way I see our lives is that God didn’t actually have greatness in plan for me, but I believe that he chose me to be a mother of someone that was going to be great.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies