South African sprinter Wayde van Niekerk, who won the Sport Star and Sportsman of the year awards in the 2015 SA Sport Awards, flew the country’s flag high on Monday after winning the 400m race at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, setting a new world record in the process.
Van Niekerk won the race in 43.03 seconds, breaking a 17-year-old world record of 43.18s which was set by America’s Michael Johnson at the World Championships which took place in Seville in 1999.
This year, defending champion Kirani James of Grenada, who finished the race in 43.76 seconds, and America’s Lashawn Merritt (43.85s) took second and third positions respectively.
A number of excited South Africans took to social media to express their excitement and to congratulate van Niekerk on his wondrous achievement. Sport and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula tweeted, “Wayde is South Africa’s current Sportstar and Sportsman of the year 2015. He is coming for 2016 crown.” In another tweet he thanked the van Niekerk for giving the country a star. “To The van Niekerk family thank you for giving South Africa a star thank you Mammie @WaydeDreamer,” Mbalula tweeted.
Wayde van Niekerk is the first South African sprinter to win a gold medal in the Olympic Games since Bevil Rudd, who won the 400m race in 49.6 seconds in 1920 at Antwerp in Belgium.
Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who defended his title as the world’s fastest man, is said to have predicted van Niekerk’s world-record-breaking win. The two athletes met in June in Jamaica, where they trained in one camp for two weeks.
When van Niekerk won the 400m race, Bolt interrupted his own TV interview and went over to congratulate him.
This is what van Niekerk said of Bolt: “He’s been such a huge rock in inspiring me as an athlete. He told me back in Jamaica that I would break the world record and he came to me afterwards and said ‘I told you that you can do it’.
The two record-smashing athletes have expressed interest in racing against each other in the future.
According to commentary, van Niekerk’s win, which has exposed him to international sponsors, has put him in a good position to become one of the highest earning track and field athletes.