LONDON — Usain Bolt doesn’t really want to anoint the next “Usain” in track and field, but when pressed during the leadup to his last world championships he does have a name in mind — Wayde van Niekerk.
“One person I know that will step up and he’s been doing good — Van Niekerk is really showing that he wants to really take my place,” Bolt said.
Beyond the amazing things Bolt did throughout his career, two record runs by other athletes stand out over the past decade: David Rudisha setting a world record to win the 800 meters at the London Olympics and South Africa’s Van Niekerk running in the outside lane at the Rio Games last year to win gold with a 400-meter world record.
Rudisha is out injured for the world championships, starting in London on Friday. But this year, there seems to be no stopping Van Niekerk, who seems ready to stamp his name on the London meet.
Just how good is he now? Top time in the 400, world-best time (the equivalent of a world record) in the rarely-run 300, second-best time in the 200 this season. And even in the 100, his 9.94 seconds makes him the sixth-best performer this year.
Don’t count on him running all three sprints in London, though. A 200-400 double would probably make him the star of the event.
While van Niekerk may have the times and the fitness to take over Bolt’s mantle, he is still lacking the outsize personality, charisma and signature celebratory move. Unlike Bolt, there is still no lightning when the South African runner enters a room.
And that is just OK with the soft-spoken 25-year-old from Cape Town.
“I find it extremely difficult to even come close to what Usain has represented in his charismatic ways,” Van Niekerk said. “Usain has set the bar quite high.”
Yet nothing daunts him. The 400-meter record by Michael Johnson was set in 1999 and was supposed to be untouchable. And few gave a chance to Van Niekerk to get even close to the mark last year when he was allotted the outside for the Olympic final, where all others can target you — and you see no one usually until it’s too late to react.
Still, it produced one of the most stirring runs in Olympic history when nobody could catch him as he won in a record 43.03 seconds.
Bolt’s 200 world record of 19.19 is considered out-of-reach. But Van Niekerk knows better. “I long time don’t believe in ‘unbeatable’ anymore,” he said.
At a blink, he seems to be in a league all his own, yet opposition is pushing him.
During his last race in Monaco two weeks ago, he only just held off Isaac Makwala, who has emerged as a top challenger. Underscoring his excellent form this season, the Botswanan became the first man ever to run a sub-20 200 and a sub-44 400 on the same night. And in the 200, Makwala has the season’s top time ahead of Van Niekerk.
In the 200, Andre De Grasse was expected to take over from Bolt, but the Canadian is out injured. Too bad Bolt won’t be joining Van Niekerk in the 200. He’s only running the 100 and the relay in London, his farewell meet.
The 30-year-old Bolt said age conspired against him so late in his career. “That is one of the most disappointing things: that he came along at this late stage that I didn’t get to compete against him.”