Wayde van Niekerk was a superstar of athletics even before he broke Michael Johnson’s 400 metres world record in a jaw dropping 43.03 seconds on Sunday.
He was already the first man to go sub-10sec for 100m, sub-20sec for 200m and sub-44sec for 400m, a feat he completed in March.
But drawn in lane eight after a poor semi-final, the odds were stacked against the South African. Not since 1924 and Eric Liddell — immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire — had anyone won an Olympic 400m title from that position. Perhaps it should not have been such a surprise.
Van Niekerk has been defying expectations since he was born, 11 weeks prematurely, a bag of skin and bone weighing less than a bag of sugar and barely breathing.
Doctors at Cape Town’s Groote Schuur hospital warned his mother, Odessa, he could be disabled. He spent several weeks in an incubator but grew into an ordinary little boy with exceptional sprinting talent.
Aed 24, not much about him yells top athlete. Slender and softly poken, he is coached by Ans Botha, a 74-year-old with four great grandchildren, who has been coaching since the 1960s.
Silver haired and bespectacled, Botha may look like a school headmistress but she has proved herself to be something of a genius, helping Van Niekerk drop his personal best by an incredible four seconds since she became his coach in 2012.’
After breaking Johnson’s record, which had stood since August 1999, Van Niekerk paid tribute to Botha, or Tannie (Auntie) Ans, as she is affectionally known. At home in South Africa, his former primary school teacher Ashley Field could not believe what he had witnessed.
‘I knew he had a big run in him but no idea he was about to blow the whole world away,’ said Field, who coached Van Niekerk from the age of six to 12. ‘It’s mind-boggling to think he’s broken Michael Johnson’s record.