Wayde van Niekerk was not destined for greatness. The best he could hope for was 1 or 2 international bronze medals. He was an average international sprinter and his unremarkable sprinting record spoke for itself. He would eventually be forgotten.
Despite Wayde’s unfortunate inability to prove himself a formidable international sprinter, he showed promise as a competent national sprinter. At age 10, he won the 2003 South African under-11s 100m championships. Several years later, at the 2010 South African Junior Championships, the 18 year old Wayde finished an acceptable fourth place in the 100m and a respectable second in the 200m. In that same year, he qualified for the World Junior Championships and finished a better than expected 4th place in the 200m. Also running at this event was an extraordinary young man named, Kirani James, an athlete destined for 400m superstardom. Approximately the same age as Wayde, Kirani had become known as an athletics prodigy, beginning his journey to 400m dominance at the age of 14.
In 2011, Wayde began to show his promise as an athlete capable of competing on the national stage whilst at the same time, failing to impress on the international stage. Competing in the South African Junior Championships, he took first place in 100m and 200m and also placed first in the 200m at the South African Championships. At the African Junior Championships, he took an as expected 4th place in 200m.
Plagued by injuries, 2012 was an unremarkable year for Wayde. During this period, the incredible and undisputed 400m champion, Kirani, took 400m gold at the 2011 World Athletics Championships and simply dominated at the 2012 Olympics. Kirani was destined to be the reigning 400m champion for years to come.
Plagued by illness, 2013 was a bad year for Kirani. He had placed 7th at the World Championships and did not enter any major competitions. However, every great athelete has an ‘off year’ or two, and Kirani was no exception. Meanwhile, Wayde had performed as expected. Focusing mostly on the 400m, he placed first at the SA Championships and SA under23’s, but failed to make it to World Championships final, placing fifth in the heats.
In 2014, Wayde earned an unexpected 400m silver at the Commonwealth Games. As expected, the gold went to Kirani. In 2015, something even more unexpected happened. Wayde had taken the 400m gold at the World Championships, with Kirani trailing at a distant third and 400m specialist, LaShawn Merritt, taking second place. During this race, all three athletes had run the fastest times of their 400m careers. This was also the year that he ran his first 200m sub-20. Despite his success for 2015, it would have been premature to say that Wayde was championship material. He had a very good year, but there was no guarantee that he would be able to repeat his performance the following year.
Wayde entered 2016 the same way he had entered the previous years: a relative unknown. There were whispers here and there about this athlete called, Wayde van Niekerk, but very few people paid attention and even fewer cared. During this year, he ran his first 100m sub-10, and he also broke the fourth fastest time record in the 300m. After running his first 400 sub-44 in March of 2016, he became the first man in history to run faster than 10 seconds for 100m, 20 seconds for 200m and 44 seconds for 400m. At this point, it might have become apparent that Wayde had the potential to become a competent international athlete but it was still the case that his sporting exploits received very little attention. His potential would eventually be tested at the Olympics.
In his first heat qualifier for the 2016 Olympic Games, Wayde took first place with an uninspired time of 45.26 seconds. Kirani was the fastest qualifier with a time of 44.93 seconds.
In his second heat, Wayde came a worrying second with a time of 44.46 seconds, enough to qualify for the finals. The fastest time for the second round of heats once again came from Kirani, who ran at an incredible 44.02 seconds. LaShawn also ran an impressive 44.21 seconds.
Although Wayde qualified for the finals, he ran the slowest time of all the finalists, which meant that he had to run blind from the 8th lane. A sprinter cannot see their opponents from the 8th lane which makes it difficult to win. Running both the slowest time and blind meant that it was over for Wayde. It was now a race between Kirani and LaShawn, with Kirani most likely to take the gold and set a new record. The best that Wayde could hope was 4th place but at least he made the final.
As the final race began, Kirani blasted ahead with LaShawn hot on his heels. All eyes were focused on these two impressive athletes but as they approached the last bend, something unexpected happened. Coming around that bend, Wayde exploded ahead and just kept on going. As he crossed the finish line, the stadium erupted. Wayde had destroyed the 400m record with an impossible time of 43.03 seconds. The fourth place finisher had done the impossible and had become the undisputed international champion of the 400m.
With his astounding performance, Wayde had finally made headline news and started his journey to 400m superstardom. The Washinton Post had the most apt headline which read, “Wayde van Niekerk sets a 400-meter record that no one saw coming”. Micheal Jonhson, the previous 400m record holder, had called the race, “a massacre”. Usain Bolt however had believed in Wayde since the first time they met and wasn’t surprised by his performance. Although disappointed in his performance, LaShawn said that he sees Wayde going sub-43 and predicted that he would be the new star of the sport. Kirani congratulated Wayde and said that he exemplified what it meant to be an athlete.
Yes, Wayde van Niekerk was not destined for greatness, but on this one, destiny got it wrong.