Golden boy van Niekerk sets his sights on a double life
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Wayde van Niekerk faces a test of strength on Thursday night as he treads the rival strewn path towards global superstardom.
The 25-year-old runs in the final of the 200m and victory will make him the first man since Michael Johnson in 1995 to win both the 400m and 200m at the same world championships.
Last summer at the Rio Olympics, van Niekerk smashed Johnson’s 19-year-old world record on his way to gold in the 400m.
That high came a year after van Niekerk announced his talent at the world championships in Beijing where he claimed the 400m crown. Back then a certain Usain Bolt was lord of the 200m.
This year, the self-declared living legend is a fading force. He could only scamper to bronze in the 100m final on 5 August.
Van Niekerk has been anointed by athletics’ administrators to inhabit the vacuum left by Bolt’s retirement.
The South African has acknowledged the difficulty of projecting Boltesque charisma and collecting crowns. “It is easier said than done,” said van Niekerk. “We’ve seen throughout all the events at the championships that there is competition and it is unpredictable. But I know that I have got the ability.
“But it is one thing to be named the greats of track and field, it is a different thing putting out the performances to lay concrete grounds for that recognition.”
There was a taste of that uncertainty on Wednesday night. Nearly 24 hours after strolling to the 400m title, van Niekerk was back out on the track for the semi-finals of the 200m. In the pouring rain he was unable to come first or second to obtain an automatic qualifying slot for Thursday night’s final. He had to wait to discover if he was one of the fastest third place finishers.
Double dream continues
Fortunately for his double dream, he scraped through in 20.28 seconds. But it was a far from convincing performance especially with a grudge fuelled Isaac Makwala out of the quarantine that forced him to miss the 400m.
The 31-year-old from Botswana ran on his own qualify for the 200m semis and then was one of the swiftest into the final. Trinidad and Tobago’s Jereem Richards will be among the contenders as well as Ramil Guliyev from Turkey.
“I know that I’ve got a massive responsibility on me to keep on growing, keep on performing and continue winning medals,” added van Niekerk. “And that’s what is important right now to continue the great legacy that ‘the greats’ have left behind and continue building track and field.”
On Thursday night just before 10pm local time, the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in east London and the rest of the athletics world will watch to see if van Niekerk has the stuff of legends.
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