What a Wayde to handle fame

There are two ways of winning. One is familiar to us – the boasting presidential candidate, the arrogant billionaire and the athletics giant who repeatedly points to his vest in case you fail to connect name and feat. Many people are taken by the extravagance of these puffed-up performers; perhaps we want to be like them, and so we encourage this kind of self-adulation.

Professor Jonathan Jansen.
Professor Jonathan Jansen.

I seldom miss the first-year athletics event on campus. All residence students are encouraged to do something – run or jump or throw something. For most of these new undergraduates, this is a fun event, nothing more. But others are serious athletes fresh from top high schools around the country.

In the 100m race, my eyes almost popped out. Two first years came flying down the track only to do a dead stop at the finishing line, and then walk over together. It took forever, it seemed, before the other competitors eventually arrived. One of those flyers was Wayde van Niekerk. None of us realised then that this new student would become the world and Olympic champion over 400m, and break a 17-year-old record in that discipline.

What makes Wayde different from most high-achievers is his genuine humility. Watch what happens after a race. He walks over to thank those whom he has just beaten; that does not normally happen. He goes to the finishing line, drops to his knees, and sends up a prayer of gratitude.

The media might say that in a competitive race he “wiped out” other titleholders like Kirani James from Grenada or LaShawn Merrit from the US. No, Wayde praises them for helping him; he even went to the Caribbean to learn from and train with Usain Bolt. The two men clearly good friends.

I’m not sure where Wayde’s humanity comes from. Is it perhaps an awareness of the fact that he was born prematurely and his mother was told that the just over 1kg baby had only 24 hours to live? He recently gave half a million rands to a neonatal unit at Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital where he was born.

Or does his humility arise from the fact that he regards himself as lucky to have been born this side of 1994 since, on that side, his mother could not live out her own dreams as an athletics champion because apartheid made sure her dreams were dashed?

Or maybe what makes this champion unusual is simply the grounded values of his mother, and coach, who live modest, unflashy lives in Bloemfontein.

Last month I invited about 50 senior and past UFS students to a congratulatory dinner party to thank them for making a massive difference to campus life and culture during my tenure. Wayde was of course, among these student greats but you hardly heard him and he made sure he did not stand out in the small crowd even as many sought “selfies” with the champ.

He also has the same girlfriend from the community, and unlike other black youth who discover sporting fame, he did not run off with a blonde white woman; nothing wrong with that, it is just that it is so common. Nor does he walk around trailed by an entourage.

I cannot think of more powerful symbolism than the partnership between Wayde and his 74-year-old white coach, Tannis Ans, as we call her. On a campus in the conservative heartland of South Africa, here is a walking model of human care and togetherness across the barriers of race and gender.

Like Wayde, coach Anna Sofia Botha is a soft-spoken, humble person. But behind that warm, white-haired, granny demeanour is a tough mentor. She proves that leading a young man from a disadvantaged community to become a world-beater is partly about high-level technical skills in this athletics discipline; it is also about love and care and commitment to your mentee.

Wayde’s life is about to change dramatically. Millions of dollars will come his way in prizes and endorsements. Adoring fans from across the world will travel to see him run. Media houses will place him on front pages of magazines and newspapers. Speaking engagements will multiply endlessly. And expectations will bear down on him to keep performing at the top of his game.

What I have seen, so far, is that Wayde will remain grounded with the same generosity, the same coach and the same girlfriend.

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