TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
TWENTY-three years ago a heart the size of an acorn thumped, furious and defiant, inside a fragile ribcage that strained the limits of a body weighing only 900 grammes.
Alongside that heart another thumped with a mother’s dread – would her son live?
With desperate haste the pitiful bundle was transferred from Tygerberg Hospital, where he was born prematurely, to Groote Schuur’s Neonatal Unit. If anyone could save him, they could.
They did. And there he stood on a stage in Cape Town last week, 71100 grammes heavier, healthy, happy and humble, and holding a cheque for R500 000 made out to the Newborns Groote Schuur Trust.
Whatever Wayde van Niekerk achieves in his already storied life, remembering to thank the angels in epaulettes for keeping his heart beating through those first few fraught days must remain the top line of his biography.
That and the efforts of friends and family, and his own determination, to stay out of the clutches of the cruel cliches that blight too many young lives.
Sponsors don’t often say things worth quoting. Gert Schoonbee, the managing director of T-Systems, the telecommunications company who announced their backing of Van Niekerk on the same stage, did: “He’s disruptive in a way. He hasn’t been defined by the limits of the situation in which he was raised.”
In a society struggling with its past even as it looks to an uncertain, imperfect future, there is magical promise in those words. It is, of course, up to Van Niekerk to cast that spell in reality.
So far, so good. Van Niekerk is the 400 metre world champion, and the only person to have run 100 metres in less than 10 seconds, the 200 metres faster than 20 seconds and the 400 metres in under 44 seconds. The Rio Olympics in August loom like a citadel to be conquered.
Not that conquest is Van Niekerk’s style. “I want to know how Usain Bolt feels now that he has the second-best sponsorship,” came a question from the floor, and another suit said the company had an “obligation not to bolt away from our accountability to support South Africans”.
The barbs were aimed at Telkom’s advertising campaign starring superstar sprinter Bolt instead of a local sportsman or woman.
Van Niekerk sidestepped all that with a smile. Off-stage later he said, “I think it’s just a co-incidence that they used Usain Bolt. Business is business.” Indeed, Van Niekerk and Bolt are set to train together in Jamaica next month.
But why does someone of Van Niekerk’s calibre not draw commercial support as readily as SA’s increasingly mediocre football, rugby and cricket teams?
“In SA, that’s what attracts crowds and sponsorship,” he said. “That’s easy to see and I’m a fan of those codes myself.
“But I’m glad that I’m playing a small role in trying to improve the image of individual sports and showing South Africans that we have so much great talent individually and that we need to invest in them so they can try and reach their potential.”
Van Niekerk speaks with a soft clarity that requires careful listening. On stage, as he lifted the microphone, he had asked, “Is this on?” No sooner had he done so than the compere motioned for him to move the mic closer to his mouth. When he wasn’t talking he stood quietly with his hands clasped behind his back, a picture of modesty. The swaggering Bolt he is not.
Later, as journalists bustled to get into a queue to interview Van Niekerk, momentarily leaving him sitting alone at the head of the table, unease crossed his face. “What’s going on now,” he asked us.
“I’m not a big fan of all the attention but it comes with the territory,” Van Niekerk said. “I’ve learnt to handle it; I’ve learnt to appreciate it.”
And we should learn that acorns, given life and love, become oaks.