400m star out to win in land of his dreams

Wayde van Niekerk. Picture: Roger Sedres/Gallo Images
Wayde van Niekerk. Picture: Roger Sedres/Gallo Images

Wayde van Niekerk used to pretend he was a famous Brazilian soccer player like Ronaldinho or Ronaldo.

But the 400m world champion will need to be Wayde van Niekerk when he opens his campaign for Olympic glory at the Rio Games today, the first day of the track and field competition.

The only South Africans in medal events today will be 20km racewalkers Lebo Shange and Wayne Snyman, and Dominique Scott in the women’s 10 000m.

Van Niekerk competes in the first round of the 400m tonight (2.05am Saturday), and says he is chuffed to be in this football-mad country.

“I’m a crazy Brazilian football fan. When I was a youngster I thought I was Ronaldinho and Ronaldo and all those guys – it was always something that was in my heart.

“But now I’ve got the opportunity to represent my country right here in Brazil – why not make the most of it?”

First, however, there’s the business of sprinting, lactic acid, pain and hopefully success in what could be one of the most competitive events on the athletics schedule.

His main rivals remain London 2012 champion Kirani James, of Grenada, and Beijing 2008 king LaShawn Merritt, of the US.

The 400m final is on Sunday night (3am Monday SA time), shortly before the men’s 100m decider (3.25am).

In his build-up to the world championships last year, Van Niekerk had clocked a sub-44-second 400m and had gone under 20 seconds in the 200m.

This year he has not, although he is still unbeaten, having downed Merritt in a one-off 300m race in Jamaica.

Van Niekerk, a deeply religious man, is confident he will go sub-44 again.

“I allowed God to take control. I’m just going to leave it in the Lord’s hands. I’m sure [it] will come again.

“I’ve done it once before, so it shouldn’t be a problem to do it again.

“I’m just waiting for that opportunity – perfect day and perfect health – then it will happen.” But he is always looking to go faster. The runner is bringing more than 10 family members to Rio. “I made sure that I sorted eight of my family members out, but I heard there’s 10 of them coming now.

“They made sure they joined the trip. It’s amazing having my family here.

“If I had to think about it a few years ago – or even last year – we couldn’t afford something like that. Now I have 10 family members joining me.”

Van Niekerk is No 3 in the world behind Merritt, the only runner to have dipped below 44 so far this season, and James.

Asked to predict the winning time, Van Niekerk simply forecast sub-44.

“It’s going to be very tough and hopefully I’ll be in there with them.”

Hopefully, he will make Brazilians want to be like Wayde van Niekerk.

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