Van Niekerk gets another crack at big award
By Robson Sharuko
Harare – There are some who hail him as the next golden boy of world athletics – the charming sprinter who has been handed the baton to take over the role which the immortal Jamaican superstar Usain Bolt used to carry on his shoulders before his retirement from the sport this year.
The 25-year-old sprinter Wayde van Niekerk won two medals at the IAAF World Championships in London, including defending his 400m sprinting crown, in August and then ran a 300m world best of 30.81 in Ostrava in June.
He has now been shortlisted for the prestigious IAAF World Athlete of the Year award which will be handed out in Monaco on November 24.
The awards show in the French principality are set to usher in a new star for world athletics following the retirement of Bolt whose dominance in the past decade cast a spell over all the other athletes in the world.
The Jamaican sprinting superstar was named the IAAF Athlete of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013 and last year after his heroics at the Rio Olympic Games.
But Bolt called time on his glittering career after the World Championships in London where he lost the 100m title to American sprinter Justin Gatlin and also ended his journey on a losing note after injury ruined the final leg of the Jamaican 4x100m relay team’s bid for gold.
“It’s really sad that I have to walk away now but the energy of the crowd is great. The fans really love me and I appreciate that,” Bolt told the IAAF official website as he waved goodbye to the sport that transformed him into a global icon.
“I have no regrets about running this year. The fans asked me. They wanted to see me one more year. I wanted to do it for my fans. Without them, I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done. They gave me the energy.
“I don’t think one championship is going to change what I’ve done. I remember after losing the 100m final, someone said, ‘Don’t worry. Muhammad Ali lost his last fight’.
“I’ve proved myself year in, year out. I think the fact that I didn’t win my last race doesn’t affect what I’ve done in the sport.”
That Bolt, for long the face of clean sportsmen in an era dominated by doping cheats, should lose his final 100m race at the IAAF World Championships to Gatlin, who was once banned from the sport in a career tainted by doping, ensured that the fairy-tale ending, which many had been hoping, and even praying for, could not materialise.
That has now left the world searching for its next Prince Charming in athletics and Van Niekerk has been touted as the one who can fit into big shoes left by the great Jamaican.
The South African sprinter stunned the world last year when he ran the fastest 400m race in 17 years, choosing the grand stage of the final of the Olympic Games in which he was running in a difficult lane, to blow apart Michael Johnson’s record.
“Wayde is amazing. Spending three months every year with him I always knew that he could be this great and I always knew that he could break the record and I know that you’ve some a friend is such an amazing feeling,” Bolt said.
“When he got the world record I was like ‘wow he did it’. I told him in Jamaica when he was there that my coach said you’re probably the only guy right now that can break this 400ms record because he’s got speed and he’s got strength and you came out and proved me right. I’m really happy for him.”
That stunning triumph was enough to have him shortlisted for the IAAF Athlete of the Year award but he was beaten to the prestigious award by Bolt.
Now, with Bolt out of the way, the South African will have to beat British superstar Mo Farah who powered to gold in the 10,000m and a silver in the 5,000m silver at the World Championships and world high jump champion Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar for the big prize.
“It is such an honour to be recognised as a finalist again,” Van Niekerk told the South African media.
“Just to be mentioned alongside such amazing athletes is special. Congratulations and good luck to my fellow finalists.”
And the South African athletics bosses have also been hailing him after his latest recognition from the IAAF.
“Well done to Van Niekerk, who deserves all the recognition he receives for his performances on the track this year,” said Athletics South Africa president Aleck Skhosana.
Should the South African sprinting sensation win the IAAF Athlete of the Year award, it will crown what has been a virtually perfect year for him after his gold medal triumph in London and tying the note with his sweetheart Chesney Campbell.
Van Niekerk took to Twitter and Instagram to tell his followers of the developments in his personal life.
“Can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with you @Neshney. So blessed to start this next adventure with the girl of my dreams! I love you!”
Should the South African win the award in Monaco, he will follow into the footsteps of fellow Africans – Wilson Kipketer, a Kenyan who won the award after running in the colours of Denmark in 1997, Hicham Al Guerrouj of Morocco who won the award in 2001, 2002 and 2003, Kenenisa Bekele who win the award in 2004 and 2005 and David Rudisha who won the award in 2010.