In this exclusive extract from new book Vuvuzela Dawn: 25 Sports Stories that Shaped a New Nation by Luke Alfred and Ian Hawkey, the roots of SA’s Olympic 400m gold medallist Wayde van Niekerk are thoroughly explored …
At the family home of the fastest human to lap an Olympic track, the first greeting for the visitor is a yap, a bark and a series of excitable, haphazard sprints.
This is hello from Rio, the junior athlete of the family. You can guess where he got his name, although this handsome husky was christened not in commemoration of the landmark in the life of the household’s eldest son, but as a prophecy.
Rio was still a puppy when he was named, four years before Wayde van Niekerk became top dog of the track on a blessed night in Rio de Janeiro.
The next greeting comes from the first champion sprinter of the family, Wayde’s mother. Odessa Swarts, née Krause, got her exotic Christian name from a city too, her mother Margaret taking a liking to the word ‘Odessa’ in the 1970s and deciding it would set her first daughter apart.
As Odessa Krause grew up, she turned out to have many exceptional qualities, and although she resists mapping them too neatly onto those of her first-born son, it is hard to tell Wayde van Niekerk’s story, to trace the rise of South Africa’s greatest male track star of the 21st century, and to understand what propelled him to shatter one of the most enduring records in sport, without following the strongest bough of his family tree.
Once inside the Bloemfontein home where Rio the dog keeps guard, you find the comfortable living room the kids, teasing, sometimes refer to as The Museum. Odessa is its chief curator, arranging on its walls and surfaces the memorabilia of achievements, mostly her children’s – the two talented sporting sons, Wayde and Craig, and daughter Kayla – of which there is a great deal.
But if you look very carefully among the trophies, the running vests, the medals and certificates, you will find older photos and newspaper clippings from a previous generation.
Odessa Krause, as she was known before she became Odessa van Niekerk, won medals as a sprinter. As Odessa puts it, she was well built as a teenager; Wayde is wiry.
But place some of the old black-and-white images, turned sepia with the years, of a running Odessa Krause next to the pre-Olympic Wayde, and the resemblances jump off the page: a like-for-like match in the way they lean their shoulders; in the hang of their right and left arms at peak stride.
Occasionally, mother and son have sat together and studied these past-and-present snapshots, and remarked on the similarities.
And if you watched their faces when they looked at the photos, you could bet they both had the same coy, slightly uneven smile on their lips that is plainly genetic.
So much for the parallels. It is in the differences in the dreams they pursued, the horizons they glimpsed, that the tale of these two runners, mother and son, cannot help but act as a parable for a changing South Africa.
Wayde van Niekerk was born in 1992, some 10 days, as it happened, before the Barcelona Olympics, where a Texan named Michael Johnson with a distinct, upright running style over 200 and 400 metres would win the first of several Games golds and where South Africa was represented for the first time in 32 years.
The event largely passed his teenaged mother by, mainly because the birth had become complicated, the infant’s very survival at risk. Besides that, for Odessa Krause the Olympic Games had always been for other people, something remote, and effectively forbidden.
Odessa, like Wayde the oldest of three siblings, spent most of her early years in Athlone. Life was a struggle, tackled valiantly by a single mother, Margaret, eking a living from her catering jobs in Sea Point, commuting daily from the coloured district to service at the white seafront. Life was also framed by the Struggle.
“There were a lot of riots,” Odessa remembers of coming into her teens during the mid-1980s State of Emergency in South Africa. For this schoolgirl, a degree of athletic dexterity became a requirement, simply to stay safe.
“I started high school in Athlone and there were always Casspirs outside the school,” she recalls, “and on a few occasions when we got to school we had to then go home and jump over peoples’ fences, ducking and diving just because the rubber bullets were going off, or teargas was being fired into our school yard.”
Her place of peace, of fulfilment, was the track. At 16 she matched the best time over 100 metres set by any girl competing under the then South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB), and established a number of junior records over 100 and 200 metres.
At the same time, she competed under an impenetrable glass ceiling. South African athletics was a long way from unity, and if the prospect of it could sometimes feel tantalisingly close as the drive to have the country represented at the 1992 Olympics gathered momentum, it was illusory: the panorama for an athlete of colour like Odessa Krause remained skewed by the brutal mechanics of apartheid in favour of predominantly white athletes of the South African Amateur Athletics Union (SAAAU).
“We would see them on TV,” she remembers, “and the plus point of that was you could compare, you could measure yourself against them and say: ‘I would have won that race’, or, ‘I would have bettered that time’.
“But knowing you were running the same times as theirs also made you not want to dream bigger. That was the sad part: it was so close but yet not so close. They would run on the tartan track; we had the grass and the ash track. And at Green Point, the ash track was right next to the big Green Point stadium. But we were never allowed to run there. You were in a bubble.”
Athletics still brought Odessa camaraderie, friendships and love. She met Wayne van Niekerk, a promising high-jumper, and soon he and Odessa were expectant parents. But the pregnancy was fraught, the child born 11 weeks premature and suffering from a blood infection.
He was tiny, no more than ‘flesh and bone’, as his mother remembers her first sight of him.
Wayde van Niekerk came into the world keeping his fine athletic potential well concealed in his emergency incubator, and, according to the doctors’ prognosis, at risk of disability.
“That changed my life,” recalls Odessa with heavy understatement, “and it made me much stronger. I knew I had to fight to give this person the best future I can.”
After parenthood and marriage, Odessa van Niekerk returned to the track briefly – and impressively – but soon put running second to building a career that would help provide opportunities for her active, ambitious sons.
Wayde’s challenging start on the long track of life had given way to boundless energy and an evident sporting potential his family wanted him to be able to nourish.
Both parents provided guidance and support, as would stepfather Steven Swarts, a former SAAAB middle-distance runner whom Odessa married when Wayde was coming into his teens.
They moved to Bloemfontein, to Johannesburg for a year, and then back to the capital of the Free State, where the oldest son’s talent would be hothoused at Grey College, alma mater to many singular South African sportsmen and equipped with the space and facilities for a runner, a cricketer, a rugby player to thrive.
The student Van Niekerk liked all of those, and more, to the point of distraction. For a period, Van Niekerk stopped running in order to pursue his interests in team games. If there had been any temptation for his mother to live out her athletic dreams vicariously through her gifted son, they stopped there.
“Yes, it was sad for me when he didn’t want to do athletics any more, but we said to ourselves: ‘Leave him, he’ll come back if he wants it’.”
He did so at Grey – and with jets in his heels. At the age of 18 Wayde, South African starlet, finished fourth in the 200 metres at the World Junior Championships in Canada, and became the South African champion over 200 metres in 2011 in a time fast enough to make him a candidate for the 2012 London Olympics.
Then the first major setback, a recurring hamstring problem that smashed his dreams of running in London, of sharing a stage with the sprint phenomenon of the era, Usain Bolt. In some respects, the
injury was serendipitous. And by now, he had also come under the mentorship of Tannie Ans.
‘Tannie’ Ans Botha is the septuagenarian great-grandmother from Namibia who began coaching Van Niekerk when he enrolled at the University of the Free State as a marketing student. She had not been assessing him long when she concluded that this lithe, 1.80-metre-tall inheritor of
strong running DNA and what his mother calls “a real drive of wanting to be the best” was better built for a longer distance than the 100 metres or 200 metres.
Van Niekerk was initially sceptical. The 400 metres seemed to him to place so many more potential tortures on the soul than the shorter runs.
It was strategically more complex. For someone aspiring to be the very best, it also seemed beset with records as apparently unreachable as those Bolt was busy setting down in the shorter distances. Michael Johnson, with his pioneering, pitter-patter strides, had established the best time (43.18) way back in 1999. Nobody in a decade and a half of the new millennium had managed to break it.
But the accumulated wisdom of Tannie Ans told her the quarter-mile could become Wayde’s world, his dominion …
(By Ian Hawkey)
*Vuvuzela Dawn: 25 Sports Stories that Shaped a New Nation, by Luke Alfred and Ian Hawkey, is published by Pan Macmillan and available in leading bookstores. Recommended retail price: R295