This is Deji Ogeyingbo’s feature on the Men’s 400 meters.
Wayde Van Niekerk comes full circle, and a win in Budapest will seal an incredible legacy.
What a story this would be. Six years since his last world title in London and Wayde Van Niekerk would have come full circle. The South African has defied solitude for most of his career. And he has laughed in the face of antipathy and ambivalence even as he became the greatest 400m runner the world had ever witnessed. The past few months have seen the track world witness a rebirth of a man that once made people stand on their feet, running times that once made him the delight of the world.
Van Niekerk has always been the beautiful bride of track and field. And in a sport where there are many events for fans to pick a favorite, an athlete will have to be extra special for him/her to warm his way in the hearts of the fans with his performance. It felt like it came naturally to the South Africans. No razzmatazz and buzz. Just pure artistry when he races.
Wayde Van Niekerk wins the 400m, he’s back! photo by Thomas Windestam for Diamond League AG
The long and arduous road back to reaching his best felt surreal. It’s hard to argue that a race he wins, such as the one in Silesia with 44.08s and in London with 44.38s, was his best. After all, he made running 43s during a winning streak period from 2015 to 2017 look like a cakewalk. But this season, it felt like he was reaching boiling point.
During the pre-match conference of his race in Silesia, Van Niekerk had joked that he would run 43.31s as a tribute to his clock 31 years the day before race day. It felt surreal that a man that once graced the track with panache and artistry had to remind us how good he was. Or, in this case, he still is. Then again, that’s what injury does to the very best. It breaks you to the point that even your hardcore fans question your abilities.
Wayde Van Niekerk, WR holder, 400 meters, photo by Kevin Morris
The South African has found himself in this position in the last two years, and it was such a sad spectacle watching him lose to athletes he once breezed past. It’s the nature of the sport. Nobody waits for you. In that time of trying to get back to his top, there have been contenders and pretenders to the throne he once sat on for two years. With two world titles to his name from 2015 and 2017, adding a third in Budapest will mean more to him than potentially the first two.
Steven Gardiner has been the most consistent of the 400m runners since Van Niekerk’s injuries. The Bahamian has had his fair share of setbacks, but generally, his world and Olympic title in 2019 and 2021 saw him climb the pedestal that Van Niekerk used to sit comfortably on. This year, he tops the rankings in the event with his 43.74s run in July. Like Van Niekerk, he seems rejuvenated. He beat Gardiner to Gold in London at the peak of his powers. But there is a point to be heard that the Bahamian was still up and coming.
Wayde Van Niekerk, London 2017, photo by Mike Deering, The Shoe addicts
Watching Van Niekerk race this year has felt like watching a young Mike Tyson. It felt like watching a young man, little more than a boy, who is just starting to realize the destructive power of his strength after a long time out, and his youth and is so intoxicated by it that sometimes he cannot control it. That was how good it felt for him.
So far this year, Van Niekerk has raced in four finals and won all his races comfortably. Yesterday was another case in point. One of the sprinters looking to put a spanner in the works of the world record holder’s renaissance is Muzala Samukonga. The Zambian looks every bit of the part, and having snagged the Commonwealth and African title in 2022, he has come into this season with verve and gusto.
Samukonga is a genuine talent and isn’t one to thwart aside. He is is currently second in this season’s ranking with 43.91s, which saw him move to number 17 on the all-time list of the men’s 400m. The Zambian was on the bill at the Diamond League in Silesia but sadly pulled out less than 100m into the race. He had also lost to Van Niekerk at the Bislett game in Oslo. If he’s fit and ready to go in a few weeks, he could pose a genuine threat to Van Niekerk’s comeback story.
Wayde Van Niekerk, London 2017, photo by Mike Deering/The Shoe Addicts
There is also the defending world 400m champion Michael Norman who has been a shadow of himself this year. Having changed his coach this year, the American opted to race the shorter sprints. It’s been a disaster, to put it mildly. Maybe, just maybe, he finds his mojo in Budapest. But it’s a long shot. Other contenders are Vernon Norwood (USA) and Jamaica’s Rusheen McDonald, who has clocked 44.03 this year.
Charging in, exploring his limits, and enjoying his talent again, Van Niekerk has been all about expression, power, freedom, and daring this season. In Budapest, he has the opportunity to reclaim the throne he was forced to abdicate because of injuries.