Fresh off a record-breaking performance in the 400 metres at the Rio Olympics, South African sprinter Wayde van Niekerk finds himself among a crowd of athletes jostling for the mantle of the retiring Usain Bolt, who has long outshone all his rivals.
The 24-year-old smashed American Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old record in the 400 at the Rio Games with a time of 43.03 seconds and is the only man to break 44 seconds in the 400m, 20 seconds in the 200m and 10 seconds in the 100m.
But even those performances pale beside the achievements of the Jamaican great, whose reign at the top will end when he retires after the world championships in London in August.
Bolt wrapped up his Olympic career in Rio last year with a ‘triple-triple’ sweep of gold medals in the 100, 200 and 4×100 relay for three straight games.
He also holds world records for the 100 and 200 as well as helping Jamaica set the 4×100 mark at the 2012 London Games.
“I have the utmost respect for Usain Bolt and what he’s done for the sport,” Van Niekerk said in an interview in Boston, where he is preparing to compete in this weekend’s Adidas Boost Boston street meet.
“I’m not using him as someone whose records I want to break, I’m using him as someone who inspires me,” added the South African, whose coach is the 75-year-old great-grandmother of five Ans Botha.
Long-time track observers and van Niekerk’s fellow competitors say that no one athlete may have the speed and charisma to dominate public perception like Bolt.
“I don’t think that’s a role that’s going to be filled by any one person, but Wayde van Niekerk is going to be one of the people who can hold the public’s attention,” said Ato Boldon, a four-time Olympic medallist from Trinidad and Tobago and NBC sports analyst.
Jamaica’s Yohan Blake, who won silver at the London Games in the 100 and 200, sees himself as Bolt’s “heir apparent” and trained with the South African last year, said he was impressed by van Niekerk’s abilities.
“A lot of people want to take over but I think he’s in a good position,” Blake said. “Listen, he ran 43 zero. That’s almost inhuman. He has the platform, he has the body. And he can do it.”
Van Niekerk, who admits to wearing his fame uneasily, is aiming for double golds in the 200 and 400 in London, and in an April interview with The Times of London mulled the possibility of trying to break Bolt’s records in the 100 and 200.
But observers say the South African has not yet shown the speed to achieve that. Van Niekerk’s 100 and 200 personal bests, 9.98 and 19.90, are well off Bolt’s world records from 2009 of 9.58 and 19.19.
“He hasn’t shown that he has that top-end speed over the 100 metres,” said Maurice Greene, a four-time American Olympic medallist and former 100 world record holder. “But I don’t put anything past an athlete.”
Van Niekerk’s coach Botha agreed that the rising star’s strength is likely to lie in distances beyond the 100.
“When you’ve reached a goal or a dream, you always have to strive for better,” Botha said. “I think he will be a much better 200 metres, 400 metres athlete.”