JOHANNESBURG – As the country gets caught up in the fever of the sprints at the South African Championships in Potchefstroom, the men’s 400m hurdles is shaping up to be the most exciting in years.
Former world bronze medallist LJ van Zyl and 2014 Commonwealth Games champion Cornel Fredericks have won eight titles between them since 2008.
For the first time in years, the duo may face a proper challenge to the throne they have made their own over the last decade.
Four male one-lap hurdlers have already dipped below 50 seconds this season with Olympians Fredericks, Van Zyl, and Le Roux Hamman leading the way.
Constant Pretorius joined the sub-50 second barrier for the first time in his career to add his name to the list of contenders.
Fredericks, who is the early leader with a season’s best 49.27 seconds and is starting to show the form from 2014, said he was confident the hurdlers will dip below 49 seconds this weekend.
“I think you will see a fast time. The rest of the guys are in good form to push for sub-49 seconds,” Fredericks said.
“Athletics SA put out a qualifying standard for the world championships where we will have to run 48.50 seconds.
“So mentally that is a block for a couple of athletes.
“But with more competition some of the guys will get close to that time.”
Going into the championships is the defending champion Van Zyl.
He is looking to win his seventh national senior title.
Van Zyl seems to be hitting some form before the championships after clocking the fastest South African time so far this season when he crossed the line in 49.29 seconds in Pretoria last week.
“I am happy, it was a positive race before nationals, and it gives me a little bit more hope. I just wanted a solid race which I got,” 31-year-old Van Zyl said.
Hamman dipped below 50 seconds for the first time in 2016 to qualify for the Rio Olympics and has done it nine more times since March last year.
He has dipped below 50 seconds three times this year including a season best 49.37 seconds which will bolster his hopes of springing a surprise at the championships.
“For me personally, it would be nice to win the title but it is more about the times and doing the best I can do,” Hamman said.
“I am looking forward to racing against them because they always pull me to run fast times. So I am looking to run my personal best.
“The biggest thing now is to go below 49 seconds which will open a lot of doors for me.”
Meanwhile, both the women’s 100m and 400m hurdles looks set to be a one-sided affair in both events, with Rikenette Steenkamp and Wenda Nel looking to walk away with the respective titles this weekend.
The talk early in the season was about Steenkamp dipping below 13 seconds and threatening to break Corien Botha’s national record of 12.94 seconds from Salamanca, Spain in 1998.
Steenkamp, who has only recently made her comeback from a two-year hiatus due to injury, said she was happy to be back and injury-free.
“Just to come back and run at nationals again, that is my focus.
“Everybody is talking about the sub-13. It is my dream if everything comes together,” 24-year-old Steenkamp said.
“I’ve been thinking about running 12 seconds for a long time but it is not the focus of the championships.”
Nel will be looking to add her seventh national title since winning her maiden 400m hurdles gold medal in 2010.