“I hope that he can get back, and that he is there. The problem is if he is there, you know, it’s probably going to be very difficult for him to be at his best”
Expectations around Wayde van Niekerk at the 2020 Olympics should be tempered, says Michael Johnson, but it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any chance of defending his title in Tokyo.
Van Niekerk, who broke American great Johnson’s 400m world record of 43.18 seconds with a stunning run of 43.03 at the 2016 Rio Olympics, has been largely out of action over the last few years following a knee injury picked up during a touch rugby match at Newlands in October 2017.
Now 27, Van Niekerk was not yet fit enough to defend his world title in Doha last year, but he has showed that he is working out via posts on social media. It is hoped he will be ready to run at the Olympics, with the 400m heats taking place on August 2.
Johnson, though, doesn’t think it’s as straightforward as rocking up in Tokyo to win a gold medal.
“I hope that he can get back, and that he is there. The problem is if he is there, you know, it’s probably going to be very difficult for him to be at his best,” Johnson, who is in the German capital for tiday’s Laureus Awards, told Independent Media yesterday.
“The more time you have off away from the sport – now he’s missed two seasons – it typically would take at least one season just to get back into race shape. So, I think the expectation for what he will be able to deliver, if he’s there, should probably be tempered.
“People approach the sport differently from a mental standpoint, and everyone is different in terms of what they are able to overcome, and how they are able to deal with the pressures of performance and expectation.”
But the fact that Van Niekerk was able to surpass Johnson’s remarkable record, which had stood since 1999, makes the 52-year-old four-time Olympic champion believe that the South African star may just do the impossible and be in top shape for Tokyo.
“Mentally, it is tough to come back after two years – and to come back in an Olympic year, and so many runners are running really fast. But also, everyone’s different, and it takes a different mindset to become world champion, Olympic champion, a world record-holder ” Johnson said.
“So, that’s a different type of athlete who may not be as human or the same as others. I mean, I was able to do some things – typically, most athletes would need some races to warm up and tune up for a big championship.
“The 2000 Olympics for me, because of injury, I wasn’t able to have any warm-up races, but I was a different type of athlete. So, I was still able to go in and win.
“It’s not to say that Wayde doesn’t have any chance. He’s a different kind of athlete, so he may not take the same pattern as everyone else. So, we’ll just have to see.”