Judging by the rousing reception he got in the Olympic Stadium in the heat and semi-final, the public is ready to embrace South African Wayde van Niekerk as the next big thing in athletics. And it would help him fill the void retiring Usain Bolt is leaving if he really achieves a rare 200-meter and 400-metre double at the London world championships. The 400m final comes first today, and the preliminaries gave an indication that getting gold won't be a walk in the park for the 25-year-old, even though he is the title holder, Olympic champion and world record holder with 43.03 seconds. Van Niekerk needed to run a little harder than he may have wanted in Sunday's semi to underline the pecking order by finishing ahead of Botswana's Baboloki Thebe. But the real threat is to come from another runner from Botswana, Isaac Makwala who is also having a go at the 200m/400m double, which has only been achieved by American legend Michael Johnson in the past, at the 1995 worlds and 1996 Olympics. Makwala is second to Van Niekerk in the 400m list this year (43.62 to 43.84), ahead of him in first place in the 200m (21.77 to 21.84), and looked impressive as well in the early rounds. And with Steven Gardiner running a Bahamas record of 43.89 seconds in the semis, Van Niekerk is bracing himself for a tough and fast final - with three as tough rounds over 200m then to follow.
"Every time we get on the track it seems as though we go to break 44 seconds. It is good competition but it just means I always have to be on my game," he said.
Makwala insists "I know I am ready" and added that he enjoys a friendly rivalry with Van Niekerk which brings out the best in both.
"Wayde van Niekerk is my brother. We want to conquer the world together. He is so friendly and a lovely guy," Makwala said. The statement shows the standing Van Niekerk has in the sport, and Bolt and Michael Johnson have also endorsed him as the new face of the sport.
He is not as flamboyant and world-conquering as the Jamaican icon Bolt but has his very own style that is a little more subdued, and what appears to be a very dry humor.
Van Niekerk - the only man to have ever run the 100m under 10 seconds (9.94), 200 under 20 and 400 under 44 - is not shying away from the responsibility and is ready to grow into the new role on and off the track.
"It's a good space to be in. It is good to see the guys support me as the athlete I am becoming. I am moving into a positive direction," he said.
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