Cape Town – It was with great surprise that Wayde van Niekerk suddenly withdrew from the South African athletics championships on Thursday.
But, actually, I shouldn’t have been surprised, as a hamstring problem led to the 29-year-old pulling out of the event.
Van Niekerk was scheduled to compete in the 200m race, with the heats and semi-finals set for Friday, and the final on Saturday.
Interestingly enough, he was also listed to run in the 100m heats yesterday, but his agent Peet van Zyl stated late on Wednesday night that Van Niekerk would not be competing in the shorter sprint.
That came before Thursday’s announcement that he would not be running at all at the Green Point Athletics Stadium.
Van Niekerk confirmed in a statement that he had picked up the hamstring issue during training in Bloemfontein recently after travelling from his Florida base.
Van Niekerk had appeared to be in great shape, judging by his photos and videos on Instagram of him going through his paces on the practice track over the last few months.
Unfortunately for the former 400m Olympic champion, things haven’t quite been the same since that fateful October 2017 afternoon at Newlands rugby stadium.
That is where Van Niekerk sustained a serious knee injury during a celebrity touch rugby game before a Test match between the Springboks and All Blacks, on what was a slippery surface on the day.
He needed an operation, and it is something that has kept him off the track for most of the time since.
On a number of occasions, the 29-year-old made comebacks, only to take a step backwards once more to try and shake off yet another injury niggle.
The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics for about a year, from 2020 to 2021, gave the 400m world record-holder much-needed time to get ready for the defence of his title, but he was again well short of his best in Japan.
Van Niekerk had changed coaches during that period as well, leaving his long-time mentor ‘Tannie’ Ans Botha in Bloemfontein and moving to Florida in the United States, where he joined renowned sprint guru Lance Brauman’s group.
But things didn’t work out at the Tokyo Olympics as Van Niekerk was knocked out in the semi-finals, clocking 45.14, which was not enough to reach the final.
The two-time 400m world champion has been hard at work in training on Brauman’s watch this year, but has not yet run a competitive race in any distance.
That big moment was supposed to happen at the SA championships, but that was not to be.
Now Van Niekerk faces yet another test of his renowned mental resolve to try and become 100 percent fit again, as he needs to be at his best for the world championships – and the Commonwealth Games – in July.
He has enough time to get into top shape during the upcoming international season, with multiple race opportunities in Europe and the US available, as well as the African championships.
But it is one thing to be physically fit, and then another to be competition-ready. Van Niekerk will need to get through a heat and a semi-final at the world championships in Eugene, Oregon before he can even think of a medal in the final.
Is he up for yet another fight to get fit? The mind is definitely willing, but the body doesn’t seem to be…