THERE should be a general sigh of relief when the country’s collective attention gets shifted away from the still confusing aftermath of recent local government elections to the one thing that has proven over and over again to bring South Africans together: sports.
Ever since that historic 1995 Boks victory over the All Blacks, South Africans have never failed to celebrate together and to cry together whenever their sportsmen and -women made them proud, or failed to do so.
And this is notwithstanding occasional short-lived skirmishes over the speed of transformation in sport. Wayde van Niekerk enters this field at the right time, soon after very divisive electoral campaigning that bordered on unwarranted scaremongering and silly battles over who has the right to appeal to our collective ownership of Nelson Mandela’s wisdom.
One thing is clear: Wayde made history when he obliterated a widely respected 43:18 second record set by Michael Johnson 17 years ago, which remained unbeaten ever since. It might be several years yet before another athlete beats Wayde’s record, if not Wayde himself at the next Olympic Games.
But what does it all mean for Wayde?
First, he’s now a superstar and will have the glare of local and global media on him for a while to come. That has already started. If he plays his cards well, there will be money – plenty of it – fame, elevated romantic and opportunistic interest and a whole lot more. If he’s left without proper advice and professional coaching that go beyond physical training, there will also be mistakes. But one hopes that they will be $10 mistakes that he will quickly learn from and grow, rather than $1 000 000 ones.
In Wayde we’re experiencing the birth of a brand at a time when South Africa needs a symbol to hold it together and remind the country what it can be like when South Africans share a dream. The key is to nurture and protect it so that it doesn’t lose its shine through carelessness, like brands such as Tiger Woods, Oscar Pistorius, Marion Jones and several others, here and elsewhere.
Speculation is rife over how much Wayde will make as a result of his newly-found stardom. Will it be the reported R500 000 less R100 000 for his coach? Will Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula extend his famous largesse to Van Niekerk in the coming weeks and turn him into an instant millionaire? What about endorsements?
Where will they come from and how, in the end, will Van Niekerk measure up, as a sport brand and financially speaking, to the likes of Benni McCarthy, Caster Semenya, Bryan Habana, Natalie du Toit, Oscar Pistorius and many others before him?
There are no clear standards on how gold medallists get rewarded globally. Each country has its own standards and, depending on the fame of the athlete and his brand attractiveness for endorsements over time, they can be paid anything from $19 500 (Germany), $25 000 (USA), $31 400 (China), $65 000 (France), $135 000 (Russia), $180 000 (Italy) up to $510 000 in remote Azerbaijan.
There is an opportunity for whoever will have the honour of managing and nurturing brand Van Niekerk to ensure that its lustre remains inspirational and attractive for a long time. At 24 years old, only the sky can be the limit for him!
Now, let’s stand behind him and others like him, forget our recent divisive politics and remember who we can be.