Wayde van Niekerk in a ‘good space’ as SA coach Paul Gorries eyes Paris Olympics relay medal

Team SA’s (from right) Zakithi Nene, Antonie Nortjé, Gardeo Isaacs and Lythe Pillay secured a silver medal behind Botswana in the 4x400m race at the World Relays in the Bahamas last weekend. Photo: BackpagePix

Team SA’s (from right) Zakithi Nene, Antonie Nortjé, Gardeo Isaacs and Lythe Pillay secured a silver medal behind Botswana in the 4x400m race at the World Relays in the Bahamas last weekend. Photo: BackpagePix

Published May 11, 2024


Athletics relays might be viewed by some as a bit of fun at the end of the Olympics, but it may be the only avenue for Team South Africa to grab a medal at the Paris Games later this year.

That is why at last weekend’s World Athletics Relays in the Bahamas it was crucial to take the first step and actually qualify to go to France.

While the mixed 4x400m team missed out in the heats and final qualifier, the men’s 4x100m and 4x400m groups will both line up at the Stade de France.

SA relays coach Paul Gorries, though, believes that if certain things are in place, the 4x400m team are realistic medal contenders.

At the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, swimmer Tatjana Smith (née Schoenmaker) won a gold and silver in the 200m and 100m breaststroke respectively, while surfer Bianca Buitendag secured a silver in the women’s shortboard event.

Things are looking slim on the medal front for Paris 2024 at the moment. Smith is in the running in the 200m breaststroke once more, but there are no obvious SA medal contenders in other sports codes.

Of course, experienced sprinters Akani Simbine and Wayde van Niekerk would want to change that narrative, but it’s still early in the athletics season.

Both men competed at the World Relays in the Bahamas, helping the 4x100m and 4x400m teams to qualify for the Olympics.

But it seems as if the 4x400m relay may be the best opportunity to reach the podium. They secured a silver medal behind champions Botswana without Van Niekerk in the Bahamas final, clocking 3:00.75, with their neighbours winning with a world lead 2:59.11.

— Athletics South Africa (@AthleticsSA_) May 6, 2024

Van Niekerk picked up a back niggle after anchoring the heat in Bahamas, and it was decided to withdraw him for the final. But while Gardeo Isaacs, Zakithi Nene, Antonie Nortjé and Lythe Pillay got the job done, the 400m world record holder needs to be at full tilt in Paris.

“I think gold (in Bahamas) would have been better. If we didn’t have to make a call where Wayde was concerned... ,” Gorries told Independent Newspapers.

“But it’s one of those things, and it’s a step in the right direction, especially with the 4x400m – because everything always went into the 4x100m.

“I think it (Van Niekerk’s niggle) was more neuro, coming from the back. So, the physio just advised us not to run him. He probably could have run (if it had been an Olympic final) – but at what risk?

“If he had to get injured and you miss him at the Olympics... And from the back, it could go into the hamstring and stuff like that, so we just didn’t want to risk him like that.

“He is fine – there are no issues there, as far as I can see. I think he is in good shape. It was just unfortunate what happened, but I think he will be fine by the time we get to the Olympics.”

Rio 2016 gold medallist Van Niekerk, though, is building up to have a full go at the individual 400m event in Paris, and that will require getting through a heat on August 4, a semi-final on August 6 and the final on August 7, before the relay heat takes place on August 9, with the final on August 10.

The 21-year-old former world junior champion Pillay is the second-quickest in the 400m group, so he may have to dovetail with Van Niekerk in the relay heat to stop favourites the United States and Botswana from claiming the title.

“He (Van Niekerk) ran a 44.2 split (in the Bahamas heat), and he took it quite conservatively. He just did enough to hold off (the rest of the field), as the thought process was that he wanted to save himself a little bit for the final,” Gorries said.

“But I think he will be fine – he looks like he is in a good space.

“He (Pillay) ran 44.31 at the SA champs. We always knew what his potential was, and if you run 44.3 at the right time, you could get yourself into a final – and then in some finals, that could even give you a medal.

“So, he looks in good shape. Even Zakithi looks in good nick, so it’s all well and good for the relay.

“If we get it right on the day, the way we did it at World Relays – we have all the guys healthy, and that includes Wayde, and we can run everyone, then I would say we have a realistic chance.

“But then everyone needs to be available and firing. Then top three is definitely a possibility.”

There is still hope for the 4x100m team to get into an Olympic final despite missing out on the World Relays final.

Simbine is a vital cog, but US-based Shaun Maswanganyi was not available as he finishes up his final NCAA season for the University of Houston.

Team SA – comprising Bayanda Walaza, Benjamin Richardson, Bradley Nkoana and Simbine – clocked 38.08 in the final Olympic qualifier in the Bahamas, but will need significant improvement to push for a medal in Paris.

“We know what went wrong, and where it went wrong. A lot went into the 4x100m, and more resources went into the 4x100m, but the 4x400m walked away with the medal,” Gorries said.

“So, for me, the only good thing that came from it was the two youngsters that stepped up – Bradley and Bayanda, being juniors and stepping up the way they did.

“With Akani’s experience there, we are just hoping that if Shaun steps it up now in Europe, which I definitely think he will, as it’s his last season in the NCAA...

“So, we’ve got him, Benjamin and Akani – three experienced guys who ran last year (at the world championships). Then you can still look at the likes of (Sinesipho) Dambile, Luxolo (Adams) – if he sorts out his injury problems – and then there are the two youngsters in the mix.

“Anything is possible if you get into the final. We’ve shown it before where we’ve run good semis, and then get it wrong in the final.

“So for us in the 4x100m, it is about getting it right in the final now.”

Both Van Niekerk and Simbine announced late on Friday that they will be competing at the Adidas Atlanta City Games in the US on May 18.