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Athletics

Van Niekerk confronts Jekyll and Hyde side of stardom

Wayde van Niekerk is attempting to win back-to-back titles in the 400m at the world championships.
Wayde van Niekerk is attempting to win back-to-back titles in the 400m at the world championships. Reuters/Phil Noble

Wayde van Niekerk’s moment of truth comes on Tuesday night in the men’s 400m final at the world championships. Can he defend his title? Can he handle the pressure of being not only a hunted champion but also the anointed heir of Usain Bolt?

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The answers will come on a cold August evening in London.

In the prelude to the 400m final, there was an intriguing glimpse into the athlete’s psyche. To a question on which rival worried him, van Niekerk replied: “Myself.”

He added: “I am giving myself a tough time. I won’t lie. There’s so much doubt and yet at the same time there is so much belief so it is like the good and evil fighting in my mind. But I will pull through. It is a competition to go through to be the best. I am up for it.”

Van Niekerk shot to fame when he won the 400m world crown in Beijing two years ago. That triumph was unexpected. The 2012 Olympic champion, Kirani James, and defending world champion, LaShawn Merritt, were in the field.

All three men finished in under 44 seconds. But the South African took the title despite the presence of his illustrious rivals. Since then van Niekerk has won Olympic gold in Rio in 2016 with a world record time of 43.03. He has given himself an extra challenge by opting to run in the 200m in London.

No athlete at the world championships has managed a 200 and 400m double since the American Michael Johnson in Gothenburg in 1995.

“The quality of competition I’m running against doesn’t make the job easy,” said the 25-year-old. “I have to take it step by step and hope for the best.”

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