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Monday, August 15, 2016

Olympics, Part VI: Wayde van Niekirk

Last night the 400 meter dash was won by Wayde van Niekirk of South Africa in a new world record time of 43.03. He doesn't appear to be on steroids (three cheers). He also didn't celebrate his victory with the usual fist-pumping and chest-pounding (another three cheers). Instead, he just seemed quietly overwhelmed by the moment.

But what I found most intriguing about him was that I couldn't figure out exactly what his ethnicity is:

Van Niekirk is from South Africa, so the natural assumption is that he's "colored," that category into which all South Africans of mixed black and white ancestry used to be thrown. But his hair appears straight, and his skin is sallow rather than brown, which is not typical of people who are 50/50. Nor do his body or features (apart from his mouth) appear particularly black.

All of which made me wonder if van Niekirk isn't part San, or Bushman, rather than part Bantu. The San are considered a distinct ethnic group, separate from other Africans:

If I didn't know who he was and saw him walking down a street in this country, I might think he was Hispanic, or even Indonesian. But in South Africa, those ethnicities don't really enter the picture. And I'd never expect an Amerindian or Indonesian to run a 400 in 43.03. Then again, I'd never expect a guy who's five-eighths or three-quarters white to run that fast either. And, come to think of it, no black man had ever run that fast before, either.

I could be completely wrong on this: maybe van Niekirk's appearance is deceiving and he's just part Bantu. But who knows, maybe there's a lot of undiscovered track talent out there on the Kalahari. (The Bushmen are known for their incredible endurance.)

Whatever his ethnicity, I like van Niekirk's demeanor and apparent steroid-free status. I'll root for him in the future.


Runner Katy said...

Love this, thanks! I was wondering the same thing....his origin or genetic makeup. I wonder what his parents look like? I also enjoyed his victory and lack of show boat attitude. Thanks for the great post!

John Craig said...

Runner Katy --
Thank you. I Googled him and saw pictures of his mother, who was also an athlete, and evidently prevented from competing due to South Africa's status as an apartheid country. She also looks to be of indeterminate race, I wouldn't have been able to place her either if I saw her on the street.

Anonymous said...

After Ledecky, my favorite performer of the Games so far. Sublime 400 - MJ's 400 was a very good WR to beat.

I was wondering the same thing about him. I'm no anthropologist, but I would speculate that his mixed race heritage that goes back to fairly early Dutch settlement of the Cape and that his African roots are primarily Khoi (or Hottentot), the dominant indigenous people of the Cape at the time of the early Dutch settlement. The San (bushmen), closely related to the Khoi, I believe are indigenous to areas further north and northwest. I would also not be surprised if he has some Xhosa ethnic heritage as well given that they became the dominant tribe of the Cape provinces as they migrated south. This is of course all uninformed speculation without knowing anything of his family history. As a matter of interest his cousin is also representing SA in Rio (rugby sevens)

This is also interesting background on the question

John Craig said...

Anon --
When you look up the Xhosa in Wikipedia, it turns out they're considered Bantu, which is the ethnic group that dominates much of southern Africa (according to some maps).

Thanks for those links. van Niekirk's cousin looks much more like standard issue mixed race; if I saw him walking down the street in the US, I would just think he was a light-skinned black.

Interesting article about the "Cape Coloured's," surprising to see that they have almost as much Bushman blood as Bantu blood.

Steven said...

He looks kind of south Asian to me, with maybe a small measure of black thrown in. There were a community of Indians in South Africa that went to work there when India and S Africa were both part of the British empire. Gandhi lived there for a while.

Steven said...

...I guess mulatto is the most likely but looking at mother and grandmother doesn't discomfirm part Indian theory.

Mum looks very Indian on this, though its in profile and she has sunglasses on. Still she looks like an Indian woman on it.

also you can see the black in him more clearly on some pictures. Gives him a slightly Arab look.

Final guess: 1/4 or 1/8 black, rest part Indian/part white.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Yes, that occurred to me, too; but then Thought about the fact that he'd just run a 43.03 and I thought, um unlikely. There's never been a single world class male runner of Indian descent I know of. But you're right, he does have that look.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Yes, the mother looks as though she could have some Indian blood, but she also looks as if she could just been-quarter black, three-quarters white.

Your guess could be right. I'd be very curious to see an workup on him.

simon isaacs said...

He is Coloured. I know this because he and I are from the same country, and we share the same ethnicity.

Our ancestors ate the following:
1) European (mostly British and Dutch). This came as a result of colonisation.
2) Asian (mostly Indonesian, Malaysian, Indian). This originated as a result of slave imports.
3) African. This includes both indigenous and imported slave:
(a) Indigenous = San, Khoi, Bantu
(b) Slave imports from Madagascar, Mozambique, Angola.

I trust you all understand this now. This mixing of cultures occurred ever since 1652 (when Europeans came), and before that between indigenous people. Mixed offspring clung together, intermarried, and very early on became a distinct ethnicity. This group was formaly labelled "Coloured" under apartheid law.

Today, we speak only English and Afrikaans. The latter is a Dutch-derived languaged with some Malay, Indinesian and English influence. Most of us practice either Christianity or Islam. We have found a new sense of identity and culture, and we do not find the term "Coloured" offensive.

By the way, my brother-in-law and Wayde are cousins.

John Craig said...

Simon Isaacs --
Ah, I hadn't realized that there was Indonesian, Malaysian, and Indian admixture included in "coloured." That explains van Niekirk's looks. I would have to imagine that there's a great deal of variation in appearance within the coloured population given that there must be a lot of variation in the percentages of each original ethnicity that each person contains.