Sprint legend Michael Johnson was in the BBC commentary booth on Monday morning (SA time) when Wayde van Niekerk smashed his 17-year-old 400m world record.
The young South African eclipsed Johnson’s time of 43.18 seconds, racing home in an astonishing 43.03. It was the second-oldest world record in track athletics. The American was one of the great sprinters of his day, winning four Olympic golds and eight world championship golds. Apart from his 400m record, he also held the world and Olympic records in the 200 m.
But on Monday, as the baton was passed from one generation to another, even Johnson couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
His gobsmacked awe is worth quoting in full: "Oh my God! From lane eight, a world record. He took it out so quick. I have never seen anything from 200 to 400 like that. That was a massacre from Wayde van Niekerk. He just put those guys away."
Superlatives like "massacre" and "obliterated" came thick and fast in the wake of Van Niekerk’s gold. From the handicapped position of lane eight, he went out strong, powered round the bend and raced home.
The television commentators sensed Van Niekerk might be tiring in the last 60m, but they were wrong. He ended up winning comfortably from Kirani James and LaShawn Merritt, easing himself into the record books with a grace that had the Olympics abuzz.
His victory will remain an iconic moment of SA sport for decades. But it is all the more remarkable, given Van Niekerk’s struggle to get to this point.
Six years ago he came back from the World Youth Championships in Moncton, Canada, wondering what he had to offer the athletics world. His preferred race then was the 200m, and in Moncton he was fourth. Sure, it was a start, but hardly indicative of the fairytale to come.
After returning from Canada, Van Niekerk (whose mother was a former Sascoc sprinter and whose step-dad took a keen interest in his career), caught the attention of Ans Botha, then a 68-year-old coach at the University of the Free State.
Botha, with a sharp, experienced eye, liked what she saw. A programme was devised with Van Niekerk, with his parents’ buy-in, to make him leaner and stronger. Crucially, it was suggested he change to the 400m, an event better suited to his cheetah-like speed.
James, though, hovered like a baleful shadow. The Grenadian had won the 400m at Moncton in 2010 and, four years later, at the Commonwealth Games, he was still winning — beating Van Niekerk into second in Glasgow.
In the past two years, though, Van Niekerk’s improvement has been meteoric. He won 400m gold (beating James) at the World Championships in Beijing last year and despite the difficulties of an awkward lane eight draw in Rio, gloriously sailed past his rivals to become world athletics’ latest superstar. Not bad for a boy from Bloem. (He attended Grey College before going to Free State University, but is from Cape Town.)
However, at the very time that Van Niekerk had Johnson and others gushing about the great 400m massacre, Sascoc was pleading with corporate SA to show them love and money. The plea had a slightly unedifying edge — like a rather well-dressed beggar hitting you up for change at the traffic lights.
The fact is that when it comes to struggling athletes — like former tik addict, Luvo Manyonga, who won silver in the Rio long jump — neither Sascoc nor Nike was the slightest bit interested.
Two years ago, Nike couldn’t even be bothered to toss Manyonga a pair of spikes.
The long jumper, who was beaten to Saturday’s gold medal in Rio by the US’s Jeff Henderson by 1cm, was such a pariah among the establishment (because of his drug history) that athletics officials warned journalists away from him. They weren’t prepared to help in his rehabilitation.
The hard-heartedness of Boland athletics officials, the region from which Manyonga comes, failed somehow to grasp that South Africans love their athletics — it’s a soul sport, reaching deep into our core of identity and belonging.
Manyonga was brought back from the brink, cared for and nurtured, most notably by a rogue Irish power lifter called John McGrath. At Rio on Saturday night, Manyonga paid back everything he owed and did a little more besides.
What will happen now? Will success in Rio initiate a spike in funding, interest and grassroots growth? The unsentimental answer is: probably not. This is because the rise of sports like swimming and athletics requires a concerted effort across a broad front, featuring sporting federations, corporates and provincial and national government.
By themselves, such entities are powerless to effect change. Together they can make a difference. Our athletes have done their bit. Now it’s past the time for those in suits to step up.