Wondrous Wayde kick-starts SA sport

2016-08-15 13:27
Wayde van Niekerk (Getty Images)

Cape Town – Mark it is as the weekend when South African sport, from a pronounced general doldrums, ground-shakingly regained its self-respect.

Make an indelible note, too, of a new magical stat to covet … 43.03.

Let it soak in slowly: that is the fastest time in seconds ever recorded for one lap around an athletics track.

The figure would be a good call for a T-shirt front – if not at market stalls already, courtesy of a quick-thinking opportunist -- wouldn’t it?

Call it the new “438”.

On that score, Wayde van Niekerk – inspiringly backed up by the only slightly less luminary achievements, when placed in their context, of Luvo Manyonga and Akani Simbine – has provided a timely, near-surreal jump-start for our sport after a prolonged phase in which enthusiasts had to dine out predominantly on rather musty glories.

One-day cricket’s immortal 438 game at the Wanderers is one notable straw we have clutched desperately at for national bravado … and that goes back to March 12 2006, more than a decade ago.

Give or take occasional fits of relief, we have had unusually lean pickings more recently.

It is common in South Africa for the “big three” national sports teams – Bafana Bafana, the Springboks and the Proteas – to be the overwhelming barometers of our success (though perhaps some will be persuaded now to shift that template, finally giving more generous due to individual sportspeople).

Nevertheless, have that traditionally most fervently-monitored trio ever been at such a collective, post-isolation low?

I would venture not.

Bafana remain marooned at 64th in the Fifa rankings, below countries we frankly should not be, like Australia, Saudi Arabia and Cape Verde Islands.

Nor is there any hint yet of a sharp renaissance on the brew from our more youthful ranks: South Africa’s under-23s ended bottom of Group A at the Olympics, winless in three outings despite some pluckiness (sadly trumping any technical or skills-related positive factors) and with a lone goal to show from the three matches.

The Boks, meanwhile, enter the Rugby Championship next Saturday third in the world but a gaping 10 rankings points behind runaway leaders and back-to-back World Cup champions the All Blacks.

Signs from a stuttering home series victory against Ireland in June did desperately little to suggest they’re on an upward curve toward ruling even this hemisphere again for the first time since 2009.

The halo has slipped even more violently for the Proteas, suddenly lower mid-tablers in Tests and enduringly, gallingly unable to cut the mustard at any of the ICC multinational limited-overs tournaments.

More microscopic examination of the national scene only deepens the maudlin vibe: a South Africa ‘A’ side laden with some senior personnel expected to do duty in the imminent series against New Zealand was grilled 2-0 in an unofficial Test series a few days ago by Australian counterparts.

So all of that was the brittle backdrop to events in Rio on Saturday and Sunday, when Van Niekerk turned budding superstardom into superstardom, full-stop.

At 24, and considering his known adaptability to the sprints (the 400m isn’t even his favourite event, he has remarkably reminded; it’s the 200) there must be a rosy prospect of further gigantic track landmarks from him.

Let’s not under-estimate the impediment of his running in lane eight – the “can’t be quite sure how I’m doing until the final straight” lane.

Nor will bleary-eyed television-watchers back home forget the momentarily heart-stopping live words of the commentator in the wee hours of Monday morning: “The South African’s beginning to tire … or is he?”

Just as the man behind the microphone so wisely qualified that statement, Van Niekerk produced the most thunderous of last 40-50 metres to claim his seismic triumph with a bit to spare.

Hold on, aren’t we supposed to be the “choking” nation? Van Niekerk’s finish seemed only to indicate the highest level of composure; a model lesson in how to provide your crescendo when it is most required.

On the way in to work on Nelson Mandela Boulevard on Monday morning, I listened to talk radio where, understandably, Wonderboy Wayde reigned supreme as topic of discussion – so too, clearly, did Arnaud Malherbe, prior holder of the national 400m record, who ran a personal best of 44.59sec at Roodepoort in 1999.

Of his own initiative, Malherbe rang in to the station in question, simply bursting with pride and eagerness to join the tributes.

“(Van Niekerk) actually calls me ‘sir’,” said Malherbe. “The now Olympic champion and world record-holder calls me ‘sir’!

“I don’t mind it because, forget about me, it just sums up the kind of guy Wayde is. Luvo and Akani are like that too … these guys are so humble and so focussed.

“Believe me, they are very special people. We need to get kids around them; as many kids as we can.”

That seems a first-class idea.

And as much as they are capable of inspiring future South African sportsmen and women, a strong likelihood must exist that they will hoist many present participants in our sport – team and more singular – out of current degrees of torpor.

Fresh starts? Let’s all drink to that.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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