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Time for Wayde van Niekerk to put touch rugby nightmare behind him at Tokyo Olympics

Wayde van Niekerk says he is ready to defend his 400m Olympic title. Photo: Diego Azubel/EPA.

Wayde van Niekerk says he is ready to defend his 400m Olympic title. Photo: Diego Azubel/EPA.

Published Jul 31, 2021


CAPE TOWN - While it may have been frustrating for some athletes to have to wait an extra year for the Tokyo Olympics – due to the Covid-19 pandemic resulting in a postponement – it was a godsend for Wayde van Niekerk.

The 400m world record-holder has had an almost never-ending nightmare from that fateful October 2017 day at Newlands rugby stadium, when he tore his knee ligaments during a celebrity touch rugby game.

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He has an affinity for that sport – and his cousin is arguably the world’s best, Springbok star Cheslin Kolbe – but it is fair to say that he probably wouldn’t want to touch a rugby ball again.

It was touch and go as to whether Van Niekerk would’ve been ready if the Olympics had to take place as scheduled in 2020, but now he’s had another 12 months to be at peak fitness.

It is debatable as to whether he has achieved that goal, though, with a hip issue affecting him during the international season, while he had to withdraw from a race in Hungary in early July due to a back problem.

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But now the big moment has arrived. Van Niekerk started the defence of his 400m title on Sunday morning in the heats (4.09am SA time), which should be easy to negotiate.

ALSO READ: Wayde van Niekerk qualifies for Tokyo Olympics, Caster Semenya comes up short

The semi-finals on Monday (from 1.05pm SA time) will test him properly, though, and then the final is on Thursday at 2pm SA time.

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“The body feels good. I feel like I am in a very positive space right now, and these last few weeks of training have been positive, been good – non-stop training – so, I am in a good space at the moment,” Van Niekerk said from Tokyo.

“(The build-up compared to Rio 2016) Totally different! I was way younger then, and inexperienced – but very hungry. This time around, I feel way more experienced, and I’ve got a lot of understanding of how I got there before.

Wayde van Niekerk walks off the pitch after suffering an injury in a celebrity touch rugby game in 2017. Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

“It’s really about tapping back into that young hunger, and mixing it up a bit with that experience, and making sure that I use both of them as key elements to get myself back.

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ALSO READ: Wayde van Niekerk ‘should be fine’ after scans on right hip

“Pressure is going to be very much part of the sport. It’s just about how I am going to shift my mind and mentality to make sure that I use all that pressures and expectations in the right places and spaces.

“When it comes to the time to perform and to compete, all that pressures should be welcomed because that is what will push me to the next level and get myself back on to the track and into a position I believe I should be at.”

The 29-year-old’s best time this year is 44.56 seconds – a far cry from his world record 43.03, set in that unforgettable Rio 2016 final, and well short of the 2021 world lead of 43.85 by American Randolph Ross.

But Van Niekerk proved in that race, where he was drawn in the unfashionable lane eight, that he has that champion pedigree. When it’s time for action, he is always ready.

That is why he only has one goal…

“Because I am a gold medallist, that’s all I want. That’s all I’ve been working towards. But I’ve said that I have come from an injury, and with that comes a lot of patience, reality, where I need to tap into the fact that it would probably not be as simple as I would like it to be,” Van Niekerk said.

“But I believe the door is wide open for me to go out and win the gold medal. Why am I here if I am not going to dream and push towards something that I’ve actually done before?

“I know what it is to win a gold medal. So, I’d love to just go and tap into what I’ve done before.”