In the days shortly after he was born, Wayde van Niekerk’s mother Odessa woke up every morning at the Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town not knowing whether her son would be alive or dead.
The 400m Olympic and world champion had been born almost two months prematurely, weighing just 900 grams. But, like his mother, the future 400-metre world champion was a fighter. He fought from the day he was born, overcoming obstacles and setbacks. Today, 24 years and 71kg later, her son is a world champion, a record breaker and he stands tall as an Olympic gold medallist.
Van Niekerk has had help along his hard path to become the best 400m runner on the planet. His family and coach always believed in him, and he is also part of the Team Visa Olympic programme, “a group of world-class Olympic and Paralympic athletes who embody Visa’s values of acceptance, partnership and innovation”. Team Visa gives athletes financial and marketing support for the Olympics, as part of a 30-year association with the Games.
Van Niekerk is a humble man, unassuming and grateful at the chances and support he has been given. Like most South African athletes he has had to watch as his sport plays second fiddle to the big three of football, rugby and cricket. Van Niekerk is changing that perception.
“Being part of Team Visa means more exposure and assistance, and at this level every bit of support is vital,” said Van Niekerk before departing for the Olympic Games. “I have my family, my coach, my friends, and the support from all South Africans is incredible. Sponsors like Visa make this all possible. I want to win a medal for all of them and my country in Rio.”
Van Niekerk’s parents were fine athletes in their time. Odessa was highly regarded and hugely talented, but as a black athlete in South Africa during apartheid in the 1980s, she was denied the opportunity to fulfil her potential. She broke provincial and national records on gravel and dirt tracks, but could not race overseas because of the international sporting boycott.
Instead, she dedicated herself to her son. He played sport from the day he could walk and run. Van Niekerk’s first sprint race was in the street outside his house against his cousins. He played rugby, earning R5 as an incentive from his coach for every try he scored, and he scored a lot.
Van Niekerk moved to Bloemfontein from Cape town with his mother when he was 12, setting in motion a sequence of events that would see her son become a superstar.
Four years ago Van Niekerk was considering giving up on his dream of a Rio Olympics after a battle with injuries. He had torn a hamstring in 2011, which he struggled to overcome. His veteran coach at the University of the Free State, Ans Botha, a 74-year old great-grandmother, sat with him to map out his goals. The long-term plan was a medal in Rio. The short-term plan was to fix his injuries. Van Niekerk preferred the 100m and 200m distances, but Botha believed they were the cause of his constant injury problems. She told him to focus on the 400m. When Botha first started training Van Niekerk his time for the 400m was 48 seconds.
Now he is the South African, African and world record holder, the first African to run under 44 seconds, the fastest of all time over the distance and the first man to run a sub-10-second 100m, sub-20 second 200m, and sub-44 seconds in the 400m.
“After Beijing those people will go for him, so he will have to run well in every race and win his heats, his semi to get a good lane in the final,” said Botha. “You work for gold, nobody works for silver or bronze, but at the end of the day it is not in our hands because you don’t know what the weather will look like and anything can happen.”
Van Niekerk has overcome much to stand on top of the world today. The Team Visa programme has supported more than 1000 elite Olympic and Paralympic athletes.
Van Niekerk is also passionate about teaching youngsters about managing their finances and, together with Visa, visited school children to find out what the next generation think about money and online payments.