Home Sport Wayde and Akani could end Team SA’s medal drought at world championships

Wayde and Akani could end Team SA’s medal drought at world championships

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Both Wayde van Niekerk and Akani Simbine found form as they impressed as last weekend’s Diamond League meeting in Poland.

Wayde Van Niekerk and Akani Simbine are in sizzling form ahead of world championships. File Picture: Gavin Barker, BackpagePix

Team South Africa had just six finalists in last year’s world athletics championships in Eugene, Oregon, as well as two athletes in the men’s marathon.

Of course, there were no medals raked in by the 38-strong team across 26 events, but that could change in the upcoming edition in Budapest, Hungary from August 19-27.

That is largely due to the form of two superstars, Wayde van Niekerk and Akani Simbine, over the last few months, although there have been improvements from other local athletes too.

Van Niekerk’s sensational victory at the Diamond League meeting in Silesia, Poland on Sunday was one to remember, and underlined the fact that the 400m world record-holder is back to his best from his pre-knee injury days in 2017.

Having celebrated his 31st birthday on the Saturday, Van Niekerk gave himself an almost perfect present when he left the rest of the field in his wake in scorching to a stunning time of 44.08 seconds.

What was most interesting to note was the strategy he utilised on the day in hot, steamy conditions in Silesia. Van Niekerk is best known for his incredible performance in the 2016 Rio Olympic final, where he ran from lane eight and set a new world record of 43.03 – breaking Michael Johnson’s 43.18 mark.

Having to run ‘blind’, Van Niekerk opened up a massive gap and never relinquished his advantage, and kept going in the final straight to produce one of the finest displays in athletics history.

But on Sunday, he held his fire for most of the opening 300 metres, with Brazilian Alison dos Santos and then South African compatriot Zakithi Nene running at the front.

In fact, coming through the final bend, it was Nene in the lead, but then Van Niekerk put his foot down and opened up a gap on the rest of the field with a massive surge with about 80 metres to go.

His stride shortened as the exhausting sprint distance took its toll on him, but he was about five metres ahead of the second-placed athlete, Botswana’s Bayapo Ndori, who equalled his personal best of 44.61.

Dos Santos faded to third in 44.73, with Nene also matching his fastest time of 44.74.

But what Van Niekerk’s effort showed is that he still has a lot more in reserve. His 44.08 winning time was his fastest since 2017, and if he goes out a little quicker, he could easily be down in the 43-second sphere again.

He will be determined to at least get a medal in Budapest, having ended fifth in the 2022 final in Eugene in a time of 44.97, as American Michael Norman clinched the gold medal in 44.29.

South African fans may see that happen this Sunday already, as Van Niekerk has entered the London Diamond League event at the Olympic Stadium.

The 400m line-up is not as strong as it was in Silesia, but he will be pushed to the line by British star and 2022 world bronze medallist Matthew Hudson-Smith and American trio Vernon Norwood, Bryce Deadmon and Ryan Willie, as well as Botswana star Leungo Scotch, who all boast personal best times of under 45 seconds.

Simbine will also take great confidence into the world championships after becoming the first athlete to get the better of US star Fred Kerley in the 100m this year.

The time of 9.97 wasn’t one of the quickest, but the victory will count a lot mentally, as now Simbine knows he can beat the tall American.

For the 100m sprinters, having the experience of getting through a heat and semi-final at a major championship sometimes counts for more than quick times throughout a season, and Simbine will hope that it will have a positive effect in Hungary, where he will be keen to be on the podium after finishing fifth in last year’s world championships.

@ashfakmohamed

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