Could Wayde van Niekerk really have ’expected way more’ from himself in his 400m semi-final in Tokyo? Asks Ashfak Mohamed
CAPE TOWN – WHEN Wayde van Niekerk faded away over the last 100 metres at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium yesterday, it reminded me of Chad le Clos’ 200m butterfly final last week.
South Africa’s most decorated Olympian led his race against Hungarian favourite Kristof Milak at the 150m mark, but the 21-year-old roared back to take gold in a new Olympic record, with Le Clos unable to sustain his earlier pace to end fifth.
“I wasn’t off. It’s just, the body didn’t work. The body didn’t come back, unfortunately. It is what it is,” the SA swimming legend said.
Van Niekerk’s 400m semi-final on Monday was quite similar. He seemed to be stuck in the blocks initially, and was nearly 2/10ths of a second behind Steven Gardiner of the Bahamas’ reaction time, but then put his foot down and stormed into the lead after 200 metres.
Once he approached the final bend, though, the 29-year-old had a grimace on his face. Van Niekerk realised that something was wrong, and slowed down considerably before managing to finish the race in 45.14 seconds.
Just like Le Clos, it looked like his body “didn’t work”.
“Obviously, very disappointed with the run. Expected way more from myself, but it obviously didn’t work out the way I would like it to work out. But it is what it is, and we move forward,” the world record holder said.
But could Van Niekerk really have “expected way more” from himself?
If you look at his preparations for Tokyo, then probably not.
Let’s not even go back to THAT October 2017 day at Newlands rugby stadium, where he sustained the serious knee ligament injury that turned his world upside down. Van Niekerk has not been able to race properly for the last 12 months.
It took him a bit longer than may have been anticipated to get over the knee injury, but then the Covid-19 pandemic descended on the world. That ruined his international season last year, as he had to be isolated for about 25 days at his Italian base.
He had one 400m race in Switzerland, which he duly won in 45.58, in September last year, and ran a few low-key local events towards the end of the year. Then, after months of training in Bloemfontein, he made the big call of changing his coach, as he thanked his long-time mentor Ans Botha and joined ties with American Lance Brauman.
Van Niekerk wanted a change of environment, and he may have thought that training with global stars such as Noah Lyles and Shaunae Miller-Uibo would improve him as an athlete and increase his profile as well.
Visa clearances and Covid-19 protocols prevented him from travelling to Florida as soon as he wanted, and he went on to win the 200m title at the SA national championships.
— Team South Africa (@TeamSA2020) August 2, 2021
But such a disrupted build-up contributed significantly to what happened yesterday and having had to exert himself late in his heat on Sunday to ensure qualification proved to be a bridge too far for Van Niekerk.
But knowing his work ethic and determination, Van Niekerk will make sure he is ready for the 2024 Paris Games. He is just too talented to exit the Olympic stage in such a disappointing manner …