Wayde van Niekerk hopes there is going to be someone to pick him up at the finish line. Photo: Antoine de Ras/The Star

In the popularity contest of South African sport, football has the tiara and veil firmly secured while cricket and rugby fight it out for the prize for first and second princess.

Popularity though does not necessary mean success and a sporting code may be just a pretty face without any substance.

Bafana Bafana are still dreaming of a 1996 Africa Cup of Nations title repeat while they have missed out on the last World Cup.

Rugby has sunk to an unprecedented low in recent years albeit the team showed signs of revival during the recent June international series against the French.

The Proteas cricket team seem to have the winning feeling any time but during an ICC tournament.

With two world tittle in 1995 and 2007, Springbok fans would say rugby is the most successful sport in the country.

It could be argued that golf is South Africa’s most consistent performer on the global stage considering the number of players who have won Majors over the years.

While rugby, football, and cricket have not quite exerted their authority against the rest of the world in their respective codes, athletics has emerged as a global powerhouse.

Spearheaded by pioneers like Wayde van Niekerk, Caster Semenya and Luvo Manyonga and supported by a host of established and rising stars such as Akani Simbine, Clarence Munyai and Gift Leotlela. 

SA athletes are taking the world by storm.

The South Africa athletics team finished fifth on the medals table in the IAAF’s Rio 2016 athletics standings out of 207 participating countries.

Winning two golds and two silver medals, South Africa finished ahead of Britain and Germany who were sixth and seventh respectively.

Caster Semenya celebrates victory in the women’s 800m final at the Rio Olympics. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Two years ago Kenya proved that African countries had no reason to stand back for the so-called powerhouses of the sport. The East African nation finished top for the first time on the overall medals table at the 2015 World Athletics Championships in Beijing.

They won seven gold medals, six silver and three bronze to beat Jamaica and the United States into second and third place respectively.

South Africa were 13th overall in Beijing with a total of three medals with Van Niekerk racing to his maiden 400m world title, Sunette Viljoen and Anaso Jobodwana each bagging a medal.

South Africa will be going to next month’s World Championships with their strongest team ever. They may not have the same depth as Kenya to claim the top spot but they certainly have the pedigree to breach the top five.

Van Niekerk’s form suggests he may earn the 200-400m double while Akani Simbine could walk away with medals in both the 100 and 200m. Only a fool would bet against Semenya to win her second outright world 800m title. 

The flying Luvo Manyonga of Paarl has been untouchable this season while fellow long-jumper Ruswahl Samaai also looks good for a podium spot.

Add a determined Viljoen and Antonio Alkana to the mix and you have a deadly SA track and field cocktail. 

We are only scratching the surface of our true athletics potential but we are certainly showing the way. Who knows, some time in the future athletics may be able to steal football’s tiara?

Ockert de Villiers

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