Wayde van Niekerk

Wayde van Niekerk

  2013 Universiade, Kazan: 400 metres semi-finalist; 4x400 metres gold medallist.

The Summer Universiade of 2013, in Kazan, was where Wayde van Niekerk won the first significant international medal of his stellar athletics career. 

Within three years of taking gold in the men's 4x400 metres at the Central Stadium, he was the Olympic champion and world record holder.

The South African made his international debut in 2010, when he finished fourth in the 200m at the World Junior Athletics Championships.

Van Niekerk's performance caught the attention of a remarkable veteran South African coach - Anna Botha, popularly known as Tannie "Auntie" Ans - and they started working together in 2012.

The following year he began to experiment with one-lap running, but it was not until 2013 that he took up the 400m seriously at Botha's suggestion, in order to improve his endurance and help him recover from persistent hamstring injuries.

By the time he entered the Universiade in Russia he had lowered his personal best to 45.09sec in chasing home the 2012 Olympic champion Kirani James of Grenada in the Ostrava Golden Spike meeting.

But clocking 46.39 in the semi-finals saw him miss out by one place on the final eventually won by home athlete Vladimir Krasnov in 45.49.

In 2014, Van Niekerk chased home James to take silver in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games 400m final, and the following year he made his global breakthrough, winning the world title in Beijing in an African record of 43.48, beating the 2008 Olympic champion, LaShawn Merritt, into second place.

The following year at the Rio 2016 Games he produced one of the great Olympic athletics performances of all time as he won 400m gold from the outside lane in a world record of 43.08, beating the mark of 43.18 set by Michael Johnson of the United States in winning the 1999 world title.

At the 2017 World Championships in London, Van Niekerk successfully defended his 400m title, clocking 43.98, and he narrowly missed a double two days later after taking 200m silver in 20.11.

But on October 31, 2017, the all-conquering South African suffered a serious cruciate ligament injury while playing rugby and it was not until September 15 of 2020 that he made his return to racing outside his homeland, having won a university 100m race on grass in Bloemfontein in February.

A planned comeback in Italy in August was called off when he tested positive for coronavirus, but in September he made an emotional return as he won the 400m at the Gala dei Castelli meeting in Switzerland in 45.58.

How fast will he be if and when he gets to defend his Olympic title in Tokyo? No-one knows, but Botha, who is due to turn 80 in 2021, is back guiding his fortunes.

"She's an amazing woman," said Van Niekerk after his Rio 2016 win. "She's played a huge role in what I am today."

And tomorrow…

Wayde van Niekerk was one of the stars of the Rio 2016 Olympics ©Getty Images
Wayde van Niekerk was one of the stars of the Rio 2016 Olympics ©Getty Images

Ten years on, Michael Johnson Performance is thriving globally through obsession with the detail

Ten years on, Michael Johnson Performance is thriving globally through obsession with the detail

Towards the end of this month’s broadcast of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards, Michael Johnson introduced the Lifetime Achievement Award, which was presented this year to Britain’s retired former Olympic and world heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis-Hill. In the course of his short address to the camera the former US sprinter - who finished his athletics career with four Olympic and eight world golds - spoke of how top performers had to accept and then deal with the pressure of expectation.