When Wayde van Niekerk crosses the finish line at the 2016 Rio Olympics he looks over to his left expecting to see a rival ahead of him. But there is no one in sight. The South African sprinter has obliterated the field to claim Olympic Gold in a scarcely believable world record time of 43.03 seconds.
The Wayde van Niekerk Story, now showing only on Showmax, does what it says on the tin and sets out to tell the story of how van Niekerk – a nice, shy young man from the Cape – rose to become one of the best athletes the world has ever seen. He may be a nice guy, but van Niekerk’s desire for success is obvious. “I’ve never wanted to accept a loss,” he says early in the documentary.
It is no ordinary feat to be able to run 400 metres at an average speed of more than 33 kilometres per hour. It is indeed superhuman.
“He has revolutionised what can be done as an athlete,” says Usain Bolt. Yes, Usain Bolt. The world’s fastest man over 100 and 200 metres.
Van Niekerk is the only person on Earth who has run a sub-10 second 100 metre, sub-20 in the 200 metres and sub-44 in the 400 metres – and sports scientists believe he has the attributes to run 800 metres at a competitive pace too.
A singular physiology
The documentary really hits its stride in its exclusive interviews with Bolt and fellow athletes Akani Simbini and Caster Semenya, as their respect and admiration for van Niekerk underscore the greatness of his achievements. Then there is the archive footage from Rio, in which Bolt is visibly stunned when he sees that van Niekerk has run a near sub-43 seconds in the 400-metre final. The Jamaican sprinter is not exaggerating when he lauds van Niekerk.
Van Niekerk is the only person on Earth who has run a sub-10 second 100 metre, sub-20 in the 200 metres and sub-44 in the 400 metres – and sports scientists believe he has the attributes to run 800 metres at a competitive pace too. Van Niekerk is blessed with a singular physiology: he has the perfect combination of fast-twitch muscle fibres for sprinting and lung capacity for endurance.
The Wayde van Niekerk Story does with some success illustrate how van Niekerk reached the pinnacle of his chosen sport. His mother Odessa was a talented sprinter in her day, albeit one whose career was curtailed by apartheid.
In an interview, Odessa talks about what it means for her son – and her son’s generation – to be free to compete internationally, and it is a powerful and emotional interview, one that also highlights the massive amount of support that athletes such as van Niekerk need from their families.
With plenty of archive material and interviews with van Niekerk’s family and his school teachers, the documentary also offers a series of vignettes into the athlete’s childhood, his character and his development. Even early in his career it was obvious that van Niekerk was imbued with a special talent.
“There’s a beauty about how he runs. It’s pure. It’s poetry,” says Mike Finch, the editor of Runners World magazine.
Yet even with a supportive family and ample natural skill, without proper direction talent can easily go to waste.
Enter Tannie Ans
Ans Botha, affectionately known as Tannie Ans, is an elderly woman who at face value seems to the most unlikely athletics coach imaginable.
“She’s got the reputation of being an old-school coach … there’s a mother side to her,” says van Niekerk.
Botha says in the documentary that, because van Niekerk was an injury-prone young athlete, she chose to put him on a programme to run 400 metres, instead of the shorter distances he had participated in before. “I had to do this in order for him to heal,” she says. “In the first years I was mother, coach, physio, doctor.”
She admits, too, that she had her doubts. “I was worried about taking on someone like Wayde with a lot of injuries and problems. I was worried if I could help him reach his potential.”
But the switch to the 400-metre distance, Botha’s focused approach, van Niekerk’s disciplined work, and training in the serene surrounds of Gemona in northern Italy, the final ingredients were in place for him to sweep to Olympic Gold.
As it happens, the ingredients that make for a fine athlete also make for great viewing, and at its heart The Wayde van Niekerk Story is a good news story in which the good guy prevails.
And in this day and age that is something to be celebrated.