South African Athletics

Michael Johnson to Wayde: Don't change a thing

2017-02-17 13:20
Michael Johnson (Getty)

South African charity, Waves for Change, has been recognised for their outstanding work in the community by winning the Sport for Good category at the 2017 Laureus Awards.

Monaco - "Is there anything going on in South Africa other than Wayde?"

That was former 400m world record holder Michael Johnson's question to me after I finished speaking to him ahead of the 2017 Laureus World Sports Awards in Monaco this week.

"Well, we can talk about the state of our government if you like," I offered.

"Let's talk about Wayde. I don't think I should be talking politics, given what is happening in my government," Johnson replied.


Van Niekerk smashed Johnson's 400m world record at last year's Rio Olympics - a night that is surely a contender for one of the greatest moments in South African sporting history.

For that reason, we could be forgiven for quizzing the American great on the young South African who claimed the world record that many considered would never be broken.

Usain Bolt's coach, Glen Mills, called it early.

"I remember the first time I saw him (Van Niekerk) run and afterwards my coach (Mills) sat me down and said 'there are only two people who can break this 400m world record'," Bolt said in Monaco.

"I said 'who is that?' and he said 'one is you, and one is Wayde van Niekerk.'"

Van Niekerk, coached by the now 75-year-old Ans Botha, delivered and his time of 43.03 in Rio was voted Best male performance of the Games.

Almost instantly, Van Niekerk became a superstar and he is now one of the most talked about athletes on the planet.

He is toying with the idea of adding the 200m to his repertoire, and will now have the spotlight very firmly on him whenever he takes to the track.

And while it may seem like a difficult adjustment for Van Niekerk given his new-found super-stardom, Johnson's advice is simple.

"At this point, he's had a tremendous amount of success. When you become world champion, Olympic champion, world record holder ... you're obviously doing something right," Johnson said. 

"My advice would be to continue to do whatever it is that he's been doing because he's obviously found the right formula." 

Johnson, who was commentating when Van Niekerk broke his record, didn't get too carried away when asked how special Van Niekerk's run at the Olympic Stadium was.

"Any time a world record is broken that is one of the most special moments for any event," Johnson said.

"I've been fortunate enough to witness world records while I was competing and since I retired.

"I was fortunate to be in the stadium when Wayde broke the 400m record, which was my record. When Usain Bolt broke my 200m record, I was in the stadium ... I've seen a lot of world records and it's a very special moment. It doesn't happen very often and that's what makes records so special."

Van Niekerk was in Monaco where he was nominated in the Breakthrough of the Year category.

To the disappointment of many South Africans back home, that award went to Nico Rosberg, who won his maiden Formula One world title for Mercedes.

"I've never met Wayde, actually," Johnson admitted.

It is not clear whether the two got to exchange handshakes at the awards ceremony, but Van Niekerk did spend some time with Bolt.

Ever since Van Niekerk won in Rio, athletics fans have wanted to see the two stars take on one another head-to-head.

With this year's IAAF World Championships taking place in London in August, the only way that would be possible is if they both ran the 200m.

But Bolt, who will retire at the end of the year, has suggested that he will only be running the 100m in London while Van Niekerk is also having second thoughts over his attempt to run both the 200m and 400m.

"That race isn't going to happen because Usain Bolt is going to retire this year," Johnson said. 

"That's one of those fantasy things that is great to talk about."


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