The relief in South African athletics circles would have been palpable on Saturday night as 400m world record-holder Wayde van Niekerk finally booked his ticket to the Tokyo Olympics.
CAPE TOWN – Wayde van Niekerk is going to the Tokyo Olympics!
The relief in South African athletics circles would have been palpable on Saturday night as the 400m world record-holder finally produced a qualifying time of 44.56 seconds at a World Athletics Continental Tour event in Madrid.
After an injury-ravaged few seasons, the 28-year-old Olympic champion can now prepare in peace for his title defence in Japan.
Unfortunately for another Olympic champion, Caster Semenya, there was no such joy on Saturday night.
The two-time 800m gold medallist was chasing qualification in the 5,000m in Regensburg, Germany, and needed a time of 15 minutes and 10 seconds (15:10.00) to make it to Tokyo.
But the 30-year-old was unable to reach that mark, finishing fourth in a time of 15:57.12, behind German winner Miriam Dattke (15:34.92), second-placed Frenchwoman Sara Benfares (15:40.97) and Kenya’s Agnes Mumbua in third (15:48.15).
Semenya’s agent, Jukka Harkonen of Finland, said in the week that she will next run in the 5,000m in Liege, Belgium on June 30.
But for Van Niekerk, it is all systems go for Tokyo. He was under tremendous pressure to get back on track after pulling up with a hip problem in a 200m race in Boston last month.
Saturday’s Madrid event was in fact his first 400m race in 2021, and he came out of the blocks looking like a man on a mission.
Van Niekerk sped into the lead in the opening 200m and had already built up a sizable lead coming into the final bend.
But with about 50 metres to go, Colombia’s Anthony Zambrano caught up with him, and the South American held on to clinch victory in a season’s best of 44.51.
Van Niekerk, though, will be delighted with his time of 44.56, while South African champion Zakithi Nene ended seventh in 46.42.
There was also something to cheer about for sprinter Gift Leotlela in the 100m race. The 23-year-old – who is the fastest South African this year with a time of 9.94 – made amends for a couple of mistakes at the start over the last few weeks with victory in 10.15.
Leotlela steamed out of the blocks this time around, and maintained his shape throughout as he stormed away from the rest of the field.
He won comfortably in the end, with Filippo Tortu trailing well behind in second place to finish in 10.27, with Mouhamadou Fall third with 10.28.
South Africa’s 200m record-holder, Clarence Munyai, competed in the 100m semi-final and ran 10.60 to qualify for the final, but he did not participate in that race.
The two other SA athletes in Madrid were Taylon Bieldt, who finished fourth in the women’s 400m hurdles by stopping the clock in 56.98, while Antonio Alkana placed seventh in the men’s 110m hurdles semi-final with a time of 14.38.