Three of South Africa’s top track athletes and former Grey College pupils will take on the best the world can throw at them at the Olympic Games, which officially started with the opening ceremony on Friday in Rio de Janeiro. The athletics events start tomorrow (Friday).
Two of the Old Grey boys, Wayde van Niekerk (400m) en Rynardt van Rensburg (800m) are still resident in Bloemfontein and are Kovsies athletes. The third, LJ van Zyl, resides in Pretoria and is the ‘old man’ among them. He will go down in the blocks (400m hurdles) at his third consecutive Olympic Games, whilst Van Niekerk and Van Rensburg are on debut in Rio.
Earlier in the year, Van Niekerk scored the distinction of becoming the first athlete ever to dip
under the world class barriers of 10 seconds (100m), 20 seconds (200m) and 44 seconds in the 400m. His respective personal best times in these events are 9,98, 19,92 and 43,48.
Two of the best 400m athletes of all time, La Shawn Merrit (USA) and Kirani James (Grenada), finished in respective silver (43,65) and bronze medal (43.78) positions behind Van Niekerk (43,48) at the World Championships in Beijing last year.
Paging through the 2016 statistics, Merrit and James must be rated as Van Niekerk’s main threats to keep him off the top spot of the podium in Rio. Merrit and James both recorded faster times than Van Niekerk in 2016.
Merrit, who clocked 43,97 in June is the only athlete in the world who dipped under 44 seconds this year, whilst James (44,08) sprinted to the second best in April. Van Niekerk is sitting pretty in third position with 44,12 set up at coastal level. He ran this on his 24th for victory at the Diamond League meeting in Monaco recently.
The depth in the 400m has shown a noticeable upward spiral since Van Niekerk won the world title in Beijing. No less than eight athletes clocked times of under 44,50 seconds since January and reaching the final in Rio will surely not be a walk in the park.
As far as Van Rensburg is concerned, his chances in Rio seem bleak. His best time (1:46,15) this year in the 800m was set up at the African Championships in Durban for his third place in the final. This time places him in only the 76th place on the world rankings (2016).
But, Van Rensburg is a great tactician and the 800m in the preliminary rounds at the Olympics are usually run on the slow side and tactically. If this status quo remains, Van Rensburg could be in with a chance to reach the semi-finals.
Van Zyl made his mark in the 400m hurdles again this year and is in the sixth place (48,67) on the world rankings (2016). If this world class hurdler for the last 17 years can qualify for the final, he should stand a chance to finish in the medals. The leader for the year is Johnny Dutch (USA, 48,10).
Van Zyl (31) is a former Commonwealth champion and four times African champion. At the Olympics in Beijing (2008) he crossed the line in fifth place, but in London (2012) he failed to reach the final.
Courant sticks its neck out with a daring prediction for the three Old Grey gentlemen:
Wayde van Niekerk: Gold in the 400m.
Rynardt van Rensburg: Proceed to the semi-finals in the 800m, but this is where his Rio Games will come to a halt.
LJ van Zyl: Fifth place in the final of the 400m hurdles. – RUFUS BOTHA