JOHANNESBURG – Next year’s Commonwealth Games offers South African athletics another opportunity to not only continue the upward trend, but also grow the depth in the sport.
The April date for the multi-sport event at the Gold Coast, Australia fits perfectly into the SA athletics season.
South Africa’s senior championships are traditionally held in April with the majority of the athletes’ programmes geared towards them peaking at the local event.
The only spanner in the work is that athletes need to ensure they rank as high as possible among the top-10 athletes among Commonwealth nations before the end of December.
Only 13 of the country’s top athletes are exempt from having to set qualifying marks over the next few months which Athletics SA (ASA) said was “as a result of their performances at the 2017 IAAF World Championships” leaving the rest with little or no preseason.
This allows athletes such as world medallists Wayde van Niekerk, Caster Semenya, and Luvo Manyonga some well-deserved downtime and they only need to prove their competitive fitness in the first quarter of 2018.
It would have made more sense to have thrown the qualifying window open and allow performances since May to count towards selection.
ASA president Richard Stander this week said each country would be limited to only 100 individual athletes across codes as set out by the organisers.
This will only add to the uncertainty and athletes will have to perform at their best over the next two months.
To their credit, ASA has ensured ample opportunities for athletes to race during the domestic summer season at 15 more meetings around the country.
At the beginning of September they announced a 63-member preparation squad for the quadrennial showpiece.
Highlighting the country’s current sprinting strength, a total of 15 men have posted times faster than the Commonwealth standards.
Van Niekerk has achieved the qualifying marks in the 100m, 200m and 400m events, but is likely to only race the shorter sprint events with his specialist one-lap event taking a bit of a backseat.
Semenya is leading the charge for South African women and could choose between the 400m, 800m and 1 500m events.
Olympic javelin silver medallist Sunette Viljoen, who missed out of world championships, will be looking to win her fourth Commonwealth Game medal and possible third title.
The Games may have lost a bit of its lustre, but it is the ideal event to grow the country’s depth two years out from the Olympics. Rumour has it some athletes will be snubbing the country and instead turn their focus to events where they can earn money.
While it is the athletes’ prerogative to participate wherever they feel fit, but they should then think twice about criticising ASA when they do not get selected for the World Championships or other events.
They would not thumb their noses at Olympic selection and should think twice before they turn their backs on the country.
Earning a living as an athlete is not easy, and it is understandable that they would like to maximise their earning potential, but participating at the Commonwealth Games should not be any skin off their backs.
Hunting season for Commonwealth places is open, and one can only hope that the country’s best athletes will be willing and able to make the trip Down Under in what could be another record haul for South Africa in track and field.