JOHANNESBURG – World 400m champion Wayde van Niekerk made a low-key return to the track winning the one-lap title at the Free State Championships title in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
Van Niekerk’s winning time of 47.28 seconds may seem aeons away from the 43.03 world record he set at the Rio Olympic Games, but it is a good start considering it was his first official race in a year-and-a-half.
He crossed the line ahead of former Commonwealth Games 400m hurdles champion and training partner Cornel Fredericks, who finished in 47.50.
The 26-year-old made his return last Monday at a University of Free State hostel meeting where he won both the 400m and 800m.
The star athlete’s last competed at the 2017 World Championships in London where he won the 400m before adding the 200m silver.
He suffered a knee injury in a celebrity tag rugby match in October 2017 and went under the knife shortly after he tied the knot with long-time girlfriend Chesney Campbell the next month.
He missed out on the 2018 Commonwealth Games while Clarence Munyai has usurped him of his South African 200m record during his time off the track.
Van Niekerk will be looking to get back to his best ahead of this year’s World Championships in Doha where he will be looking to win a third consecutive 400m title.
Four-time Olympic sprint medallist Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago said he believed Van Niekerk would make a full recovery but could battle to find his rhythm.
“I think he will be fine, and I feel what is going to hurt him the most is the time off,” Boldon said at last week’s Laureus Sports Awards.
“And the 400m, more than any sprint, is a rhythm race so he is not been in 43-rhythm since 2017 which is the real issue.”
Boldon has made a habit of making accurate predictions about Van Niekerk, tipping the South African for the 400m title ahead of the 2015 World Championships.
“Wayde has made me very smart because the next year, live on air on NBC, we had somebody ask me about the 400m and I said it would take a world record to win the race.
“And Michael Johnson, who of course owned the world record said “Nah”, so it was a good day for me.”
Boldon said Van Niekerk will also have to contend with the new era of rising stars including American Michael Norman, who clocked 43.61 last year.
“That is the bigger issue for Wayde but it is great because fans will get to see two of the best ever,” Boldon said.@ockertde