Cape Town - They enthralled South Africa and the world with their outstanding performances, and now Caster Semenya and Wayde van Niekerk are in line for the biggest award in athletics.
South Africa’s two Rio Olympic champions have both been nominated for the ultimate recognition in the sport – the World Athlete of the Year – following an announcement by the IAAF on Tuesday.
Van Niekerk was the first local Olympian to win gold at the 2016 Games in Brazil on August 15, when he smashed Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old 400m world record of 43.18 by clocking 43.03 in an extraordinary run that shocked the globe.
Few thought that Johnson’s mark could be in danger one day, but Van Niekerk – running in a difficult lane eight – ran the race of his life as he flew out of the blocks and never let up, gaining a second wind on the home straight to finish well clear of Grenada’s Kirani James in second (43.76) and American LaShawn Merritt (43.85).
Merritt shook his head in disbelief as he sat down and took it all in, realising that even a sub-44 second time wasn’t enough for gold.
And this time, Van Niekerk didn’t collapse at the finish line, as he did when he was won the world title in Beijing 12 months earlier, and the 24-year-old was able to go on a lap of honour.
Semenya produced the perfect tactical race in the 800m final on August 21 as she held fire for most of the way until there was about 200m to go, which is when she opened up and sped around the final bend to set a new national record of 1:55.28, beating her previous best of 1:55.45.
The only South African to have won either award since its inception in 1988 was high jumper Hestrie Cloete, who took the honours in 2003 after winning gold at the world championships in Paris that year with a new SA and African record of 2.06m.
That was just 3cm off the world mark of 2.09m set by Stefka Kostadinova of Bulgaria in 1987.
But Semenya and Van Niekerk will face stiff competition in the male and female categories, with 10 nominees each. Van Niekerk, though, is definitely one of the favourites due to his world record, but Jamaican superstar Usain Bolt will be in serious contention following his triple gold in Rio (100m, 200m, 4x100m relay).
Bolt will be going for his sixth such award of his career, having last won it in 2013. Regular challengers for the title will be 2015 winner Ashton Eaton – the American who won gold in the decathlon in Rio – 800m Kenyan star David Rudisha and British middle- and long-distance ace Mo Farah.
Apart from Semenya, the other favourites for the female award will be Ethiopia’s 10 000m Olympic champion and world record holder Almaz Ayana, Poland’s hammer throw world record holder Anita Wlodarczyk – the only woman to have gone beyond 80 metres – and US 100m hurdler Kendra Harrison, who set a new world mark of 12.20 in July, but wasn’t in Rio as she didn’t finish in the top three at her national trials.
The winners will be determined by a vote, with the IAAF Council’s vote counting for 50 percent of the result, with the fans’ choice (votes via social media) taking up 25 percent and the remaining 25 percent decided by the IAAF Family (member federations, Committee members, meeting directors, athlete ambassadors, athletes’ representatives, top athletes, members of the international press, staff members and the IAAF’s official partners).
The voting process has begun and closes on November 1, with the IAAF Awards Night taking place in Monaco on Friday, December 2.
2016 World Athlete of the Year Nominees
Men: Usain Bolt (Jamaica), Thiago Braz da Silva (Brazil), Ashton Eaton (United States), Mo Farah (Great Britain), Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya), Conseslus Kipruto (Kenya), Omar McLeod (Jamaica), David Rudisha (Kenya), Christian Taylor (United States), Wayde van Niekerk (South Africa).
Women: Almaz Ayana (Ethiopia), Ruth Beitia (Spain), Vivian Cheruiyot (Kenya), Kendra Harrison (United States), Caterine Ibarguen (Columbia), Ruth Jebet (Bahrain), Sandra Perkovic (Croatia), Caster Semenya (South Africa), Elaine Thompson (Jamaica), Anita Wlodarczyk (Poland).