Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Men's 400m - Semifinal - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - August 2, 2021. Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa in action REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Men's 400m - Semifinal - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - August 2, 2021. Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa in action REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Wayde van Nierkerk’s body fails him, but he’ll be back

By Ashfak Mohamed Time of article published Aug 3, 2021

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CAPE TOWN - WHEN Wayde van Niekerk faded away over the last 100 metres at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium yesterday, it reminded me of Chad le Clos’ 200m butterfly final last week.

South Africa’s most decorated Olympian with four medals led his race against Hungarian favourite Kristof Milak at the 150m mark, but the 21-year-old roared back to take the gold in a new Olympic record of 1:51.25, with Le Clos unable to sustain his earlier pace to end fifth in 1:54.93.

“I wasn’t off. It’s just, the body didn’t work. The body didn’t come back (in the last 50 metres), unfortunately. It is what it is,” the SA swimming legend said afterwards.

Van Niekerk’s 400m semi-final yesterday was quite similar. He made a strange start as he seemed to be stuck in the blocks initially, and was nearly two-tenths of a second behind Steven Gardiner of the Bahamas’ reaction time, but then put his foot down and stormed into the lead after 200 metres.

Once he approached the final bend, though, the 29-year-old had a grimace on his face just as Gardiner, American Michael Norman and Isaac Makwala of Botswana glided past him.

Van Niekerk realised that something was wrong, and slowed down considerably before managing to finish the race in a time of 45.14. Just like Le Clos, it looked like his body “didn’t work”, and he was out of the mix for the final, just like that…

ALSO READ: Wayde van Niekerk on 400m semi-final: I expected way more from myself

“Obviously very disappointed with the run. Expected way more from myself, but it obviously didn’t work out the way I would like it to work out. But it is what it is, and we move forward,” the world record-holder said afterwards.

But could he really have “expected way more” from himself? If you look at his preparations for the Tokyo Olympics, then probably not. Let’s not even go back to THAT October 2017 day at Newlands rugby stadium, where he sustained the serious knee ligament injury that turned his world upside down.

Van Niekerk has not been able to race properly for the last 12 months, for a variety of reasons. It took him a bit longer than may have been anticipated to get over the knee injury, but then the Covid-19 pandemic descended on the world.

That ruined his international season last year, as he had to be isolated for about 25 days at his Italian base – unable to train – following a supposed positive Covid-19 test result that may have been a ‘false positive’.

He had one 400m race in Switzerland, which he duly won in 45.58, in September last year, and ran a few low-key local events towards the end of the year.

Then, after months of training in Bloemfontein, he made the big call of changing his coach, as he thanked his long-time mentor Ans Botha and joined ties with American Lance Brauman, who is the coach of 200m world champion Noah Lyles and 400m women’s star Shaunae Miller-Uibo.

Van Niekerk wanted a change of environment, and he may have thought that training with global stars such as Lyles and Miller-Uibo would improve him as an athlete and increase his profile as well.

ALSO READ: Wayde van Niekerk slows down in home straight, misses out on 400m final

Then visa clearances and Covid-19 protocols prevented him from travelling to Florida as soon as he wanted, and he went on to win the 200m title at the SA national championships.

But even when he arrived in the US, he couldn’t compete as often as he wanted.

By that time, he had not yet qualified for the Olympics in the 400m, with Brauman advising him to only run 200m races. At one of those, the adidas Boston Games, Van Niekerk pulled up close to the finish line, and went to sit down, later pointing to his hip while talking with his coach.

He quickly said that it wasn’t a serious issue, and a hip scan had shown “minimal damage”, but it took him more than three weeks to run again, when he finally posted an Olympic qualifying time of 44.56 in Madrid, and then he won in Lucerne, Switzerland on June 29 with a 44.87.

ALSO READ: Gift Leotlela confirms hamstring injury, out of 4x100m relay: ‘I felt it in the warm-up’

But Van Niekerk withdrew from his last pre-Olympics race in Hungary on July 6, which he was due to “discomfort” in his lower back in the warm-up.

So, such a disrupted build-up contributed significantly to what happened in the semi-final. Much like in rugby, he lacked enough ‘game time’ to be truly ready for the rigours of an intense Olympic campaign.

But Van Niekerk withdrew from his last pre-Olympics race in Hungary on July 6, which he was due to “discomfort” in his lower back in the warm-up.

So, such a disrupted build-up contributed significantly to what happened in the semi-final. Much like in rugby, he lacked enough ‘game time’ to be truly ready for the rigours of an intense Olympic campaign.

Having had to exert himself in the closing stages of his heat on Sunday to ensure his qualification for the semi-finals, yesterday proved to be a bridge too far for the 29-year-old.

But knowing his work ethic and determination to succeed, Van Niekerk will make sure that he is at full strength for the 2024 Paris Games. He is just too talented to exit the Olympic stage in such a disappointing manner like yesterday’s semi-final…

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