Van Niekerk chases 200 world title as he steps in for Bolt


LONDON (AP) — Next for Wayde van Niekerk comes the “easy” part: Trying to win the 200 meters.

After that, something more challenging: Becoming the face of track and field now that Usain Bolt is moving on.

It’s a daunting proposition. But Van Niekerk started off on the right foot by winning the 400 at the world championships. On Thursday, the South African standout goes for gold in the 200 — Bolt’s signature race. Only, Bolt is sitting this one out, ending his string of four straight titles in the event.

Pressure filling Bolt’s role? Van Niekerk insisted that’s not his mission.

“I’ve got a massive responsibility to continue performing, continue growing and continue winning medals,” said Van Niekerk, who qualified on time after finishing third in his semifinal heat on a rainy Wednesday. “That’s what’s important right now — continue the great legacy that the greats … have left behind. To continue to promote track and field.”

Van Niekerk certainly has impressive credentials. His top time — and personal best — in the 100 this year (9.94) would’ve tied for second at worlds had he run in London, and his 200 is good enough to win big events. He’s already the world-record holder in the 400.

That he’s even trying the 200-400 double is impressive. Bolt eventually chose the 100 over the 400 as his second race because the 400 is just that demanding.

No arguments from Van Niekerk.

“Obviously, I know the pain that comes with (the 400) once I cross finish line,” Van Niekerk said. “Very excited for the 200 — my body just needs to be ready and I’ll give it my best shot.”

Now that he’s almost retired, Bolt’s future endeavors will involve plenty of travel and very little training.

“I’m excited to just live normally,” said Bolt, the world-record holder in the 100 and 200.

After his bronze-medal finish in the 100, the Jamaican great said he would’ve struggled at 200 meters, as well.

“I’m not in shape to win the 200 meters,” Bolt said. “When you’re old, it’s hard getting back from injuries. It’s time for me to pack it up.”

Soon, the stage will belong to Van Niekerk & Co.

“Each and every one of us in our sport is growing every competition,” Van Niekerk said. “I’d like to see more than just myself come through.”

A look at Day 7 of the world championships:

GOLD IS HIS GOAL: His preparation for the worlds? “Phenomenal,” American triple jumper Christian Taylor said. His goal? “Exactly the same as they are every meet and every championship,” said Taylor, who’s attempting to win his third world title in the event. He and teammate Will Claye have finished with the gold and silver, respectively, at the last two Olympics.

SWEEP DREAMS: With three in the final, the Americans are hoping for a 1-2-3 finish in the final of the women’s 400-meter hurdles. “For all of us to make it through safely is amazing,” said Dalilah Muhammad, who captured the Olympic gold in Brazil. “I want to just get out hard, command the race and bring it on home.” Defending world champion Zuzana Hejnova of the Czech Republic had the fastest time in the semifinals.

FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH: At 38, Olympic high jump champion Ruth Beitia of Spain is still going strong. She will try to hold off the next generation of jumpers, including 19-year-old Vashti Cunningham. She is the daughter of longtime NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham, who also happens to be her coach. The prelims are Thursday and the final is set for Saturday.

ELITE COMPANY: Asbel Kiprop of Kenya begins his quest for a fourth 1,500-meter title with a preliminary heat. Only world-record holder Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco has captured that many world titles in the event. Out to spoil things will be American runner Matthew Centrowitz, who claimed the 1,500 Olympic title last August. The final is Sunday.

BACK TO THE TRACK: Fresh off a bronze-medal performance in the 1,500, Caster Semenya of South Africa returns to the track for a preliminary heat in her signature event, the 800 meters. Semenya is the defending Olympic champion. She’s been at the epicenter of a debate in track and field over women with very high levels of testosterone being allowed to compete. “I’m an athlete,” Semenya said. “I focus more on running. Nothing else.”