CAPE TOWN - Wayde van Niekerk roared out of the blocks, but athletics fans would’ve held their collective breath as he passed the 150-metre mark at the World Athletics Continental Tour meeting in Madrid on Saturday night.
That was the point at which the 400m world record-holder pulled up during a 200m race in Boston last month.
Although he was able to finish that race, he quickly put his hands on his knees and then eventually sat down on the ground.
Once he was helped up by a fellow athlete, Van Niekerk gestured to his new American coach Lance Brauman that he felt some pain in his hip, and he limped somewhat.
But he has been hard at work in Florida since, and the effort paid off in Madrid when he clocked a time of 44.56 seconds to finally qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
It was his fastest time since he sustained that fateful knee ligament injury in October 2017 during a celebrity touch rugby match at Newlands ahead of a Springbok Test match.
Van Niekerk sped into the lead from the outset in Madrid, and had a sizable gap over Colombia’s 2019 world championship silver medallist Anthony Zambrano.
But the 28-year-old South African, understandably, wasn’t able to sustain his pace all the way to the line in what was his first 400m race in 2021, and Zambrano caught up and clinched victory in 44.51, which was a season’s best time for him.
“I ran inside the qualifying standard for Tokyo (44.90), so mission accomplished,” Van Niekerk told the World Athletics website afterwards.
“I’m training well, so I knew what I was capable of. 44.56 in my first 400m race in a long time is okay, but I hope to improve in my following competitions.
“I’ll next race in Luzerne (on June 29), but I’m not sure whether it will be over 200m or 400m.”
While it was sheer relief for the Olympic champion, it was a night to remember for Zambrano. “It’s an honour for me to beat a legend like Van Niekerk,” he said. “He has a very strong first 200m, but I was finally able to catch him on the home straight.
“I would like to make the Olympic final. I’d dedicate that feat to my mum… I do everything for her.”