When Wayde van Niekerk conducts an interview, he does two things without fail: he calls the journalist “Sir” and he thanks God.
It comes across as a little disingenuous, as if he’s trying to portray a character – but deep down, when the limelight fades and he’s alone, it’s hard to imagine him being anything but respectful and deeply religious. Those traits define him as a person in his role as South Africa’s most phenomenal athlete.
That doesn’t mean he’s always nice. He isn’t. He can be distant and unapologetic, but those two traits never waver, and as much as his reluctance to handle a barrage of media commitments may be frustrating to those who have to deal with him, Van Niekerk knows one thing for certain: he owes us nothing.
Van Niekerk’s job is not to sign autographs or speak to the media, have lengthy conversations with random strangers or give anyone his valuable time. His job is to run, and he’s unbelievably good at what he does.
So good, in fact, that the men he previously idolised from around the world can no longer see him as an equal. He is a man apart, a phenom whose limits are unknown to anyone, including himself. After he shattered American legend Michael Johnson’s world record last week, to win 400m gold at the Olympics, the sprinter from Bloemfontein was elevated to a new-found global status.
He went from being the most versatile sprinter in history to an ethereal figure in a league of his own. His victory, at the age of 24, elevated him past Johnson, the greatest one-lap sprinter in history, and proved that the likes of former Olympic champions Kirani James and LaShawn Merritt, and even the ageing Usain Bolt, would need to take a step back for some time.
The Wayde van Niekerk show has started, and there will be no place for anyone else on the stage. “These are guys who have inspired me. Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson are amazing guys and I’ve learnt from them,” Van Niekerk said after blazing his way around the Olympic stadium track in lane eight to clock a global best of 43.03 seconds.
“Even the guys I ran against today – Kirani James and LaShawn Merritt – they’ve inspired me and played a huge role in moulding the character I am today.” This statement is true, no doubt, but whatever feelings he has for other men pales in comparison to the awe in which he will soon be held. The rounds of adulation have already begun.
After seeing Van Niekerk’s time on the big screen at the weekend, Bolt stopped an interview temporarily to run over to the South African and show him respect by congratulating him on what he had just achieved. He had, after all, broken a record some believed might stand the test of time.
At the post-race press conference, James, the defending champion, spoke about his opponent as if he himself was not even in the race. “I’m proud of Wayde’s accomplishment and so proud to be a part of history,” James said.
Already the most versatile sprinter in the all-time international athletics rankings, Van Niekerk said his performance in Rio proved to him the sky was the limit, and based on what he’s already achieved, it’s almost impossible to disagree with him.
A family man at heart, the speedster can be many things – as polite as he is rude, as close as he is distant, and as pleasant as he is not. But none of that matters, to the extent that his personality is unlikely to be addressed too often.
He’s an entertainer, a performer, and from a public perspective, trivial issues which don’t affect his job directly will be handled by other people. Van Niekerk is a respectful, deeply religious family man, who is the best in the world at what he does.