[INTERVIEW] Wayde Van Niekerk : “I’ve got so much more to achieve”

On February 14th, the 2017 Laureus World Sports Awards took place in Monaco. Wayde Van Niekerk, Olympic champion and 400m world-record breaker in Rio, was nominated for the “Breakthrough of the Year” trophy. Buzzles met with him before the ceremony. Interview.

To begin with, how does it feel to win an Olympic title and to break a world record?

I really don’t live in a specific emotion but it’s definitely a massive honor, and a high humbling feeling to be able to break the record in four hundred meters. But at the same time, it really feels like just a stepping stone for so much more for myself because I mean as an athlete at the age of 24, I really have so much more that I’d love to achieve, I’ve got so much more motivation and I’m going to want to keep on performing well. So I’m not really too stuck on the world record because I feel I’ve got so much more that I have to achieve.

Do you like wearing the title of world record breaker? Does it make you feel like a better athlete, or is it a pressure?

I doubt there’s any athlete that doesn’t have any pressure on them. I think that pressure is part of the game. The fact that I can say I’ve got the title on my name, I think it’s a confidence booster, it definitely gives me a sense of confidence when standing on the starting line knowing that I’m about to race. I’ve got a better time than the rest of my competitors, but at the same time you should not take your position for granted. So I really think it’s very important for me to still stay focused on what I want to achieve, and not really get too carried away with any specific titles or whatever gold medals or world records behind my name.

wayde van niekerk world record 400m.jpg

Wayne Van Niekerk after his final Olympic run (Credits: lemonde.fr)

Looking back on Rio 2016, how did you enjoy the experience as a whole, the city, meeting with other athletes?

It was definitely an experience that I will never forget but at the same time, a lot of us we think that it’s going to really be an entertainment type of experience. It was really just “I need to go there and work”, because I mean we all need to focus on our events, and before you know it, your race is over there’s a lot of media behind you… So I really just focused on the job that needed to be done, and we took everything else step by step.

How did you handle the pressure before the final race in Rio?

The pressure was quite intense, especially during the heats and the semis. I felt a bit of niggles within my hamstring and it brought a lot of doubt in my head. But I think once we got down into the blocks and getting ready for the game, I think all that emotion just built up and it exploded when the gun went. That emotion at the end of the day was a positive one, so I really can’t complain. I don’t think there’s any athlete out there that goes out onto a race, that doesn’t have pressure. The least person to win or the favorite person to win, we all have some sort of pressure behind us.

Do you think that running in the 8th lane was an advantage for you during the race?

Normally, we’d really enjoy the middle lanes, we call it “the favorite lanes”, but I think it’s really been a blessing in disguise for myself, because it took my mind away from anything else but just to finish the race.

About Caster Semenya, do you think it’s disappointing that she didn’t have her moment in London in 2012, are you happy that she is now an Olympic champion?

I’m very excited and so happy for her. I’m so glad that she got the medal that she deserves but at the same time, I don’t think anything has been stolen from her. I think she’s got so much more that she can do as an athlete, and I think it was just to give her that motivation to want to achieve more and more and become greater in all events, and I think it’s massive.

Has Usain Bolt inspired you? What do you think his legacy will be for athletics and for sport?

It’s massive, I got to meet him this year as well. His movie was released I think it was early this year or late last year, and just the inspiration that he’s brought to sport, and the personality that he is, the entertainer he is for the track and field, it’s been massive and I’ve got so much respect for Usain. He’s really motivated me to want to even try and chase the records that he’d set. I think that’s what he wanted to do, to try and inspire the world, and that’s really what he has done. I am so grateful, I’m so honored that I had the opportunity to meet him just before he retired.

Do you think that his legacy is tarnished by losing a gold medal?

Not at all, I mean if you look at Usain Bolt he’s still the power I’ve said he’s always been. You can’t really let medals define what he’s done for the sport. A medal is a good material thing to have, but what he has done as a personality, the spirit and what he’s brought to track and field can’t be taken away. If you see Usain Bolt, you’ve got to know that he’s Usain Bolt, so you can’t tell me that a medal is going to define the person that he is and what he’s done for the sport.

You have spoken of confidence, how do you write that line as a sportsperson, between the belief and confidence that you need to perform and the humility necessary to sort of stay grounded?

I think you just need to know the difference. It’s always important, when you’re off to track, to show everyone around you that respect, that love and be the person you are. But at the same time, once you get on to the track you need to switch into that alter-ego of yours and believe in why you’re here, and switch on that competitive instinct of yourself, so I’ve learned to do that quite well, I think it’s very important to have that bit of confidence and that slight ego once you’re on the track. But once you’re off the track, and racing is done, each and everyone are just human beings and you need to treat each and everyone with the respect that they deserve, and I think that’s what I do when I get on to the track, just know the difference between on and off the track. Even if it’s people that I compete against, when we get on the track, I don’t expect you to be my friend, but once we’re off the track that’s when I’ll show you respect again.

After such a great year, how do you begin to follow that this time round? It’s a big task, isn’t it?

I feel it’s really just going to be the beginning of so much more great things for myself. If I look back at 2015, then 2016 has really been going from growth to growth. Even if I look further back, I’ve been going quite well; I think that now it’s just a bit more challenging, with so much more appearances, the awards now and then and sponsorship events that you need to attend to. It gets quite difficult for you to balance everything, but I’ve been doing it quite well, I have been handling it quite well. Coach is still as strict as always, she is not happy if I travel (laughs). I think that’s what you need, a lot of times I’ve got that personality of saying “Yes, we can do this, yes we can do that”, and then she will come “No you can’t do this, you need to do this, this and that”. I think I give my coach, my team, my family credit for the way they’ve set up my programs, and the way they’re leading me forward, and I think they’ve helped me quite well and they’ve brought me to what I am today. So I really trust and believe in not just myself as an individual, but us as a team, and we’ve been doing quite a good job thus far.

Are you looking forward to coming to the World Championships in London this summer as well?

I am, if you were to bring the warm weather (laughs). I’m looking forward, I’ve raced there before once and it was quite good, I enjoyed it. We’ll see how it goes because a race is a race, and we need to do the job. My job is to race and hopefully to try and get more medals for myself, that’s the goal and that’s what I’m aiming for.

You’re sort of kicking on from last year and taking that momentum… Is it good to have the World Championships in London because obviously it’s staged, the Olympics…?

I think for us South Africans, it makes our lives much easier because we travel from South Africa and we are based in Europe for the summer, and then there’s winter back at home. We are already based in Europe, so it’s literally just an hour or two flight, so it won’t be that draining. It really just feels like we’re taking a quick flight to wherever we need to be. In 2015, we flew all the way to Tokyo. You need to get used to the time difference, and the same with Rio. Now we just need to be fit, take the travel and get ready.

Do you think with Usain Bolt, Mo Farah stepping away from the track, that for boys like yourself there’s a real opening to get some more limelight and step up?

We’ll see how it goes, how the sport would want to build the image, the way they’d like to see the sport, and hopefully I’ll be one of them. To be honest with you, I think they should put South Africa on the map, because I think we’ve got some great generations of athletes coming through. Hopefully we can be the next Jamaica or America (laughs).

Are you planning events for the next few years, and to race for new distances and events?

Exciting enough. I’m going to do way more 200m this year, and back at home I’m going to do a bit more 100m. I would love to do the 100m and 200m in Commonwealth next year, but we’ll see… I don’t want to jump the gun and get too excited and lose the focus of what I have to do, what I really have to focus on and that’s the 400m, but at the same time I’d love to run more competitive times in the 100m and 200m as well.

Loris Biondi
Hugo Girard
Guillaume Truillet