It was heartbreaking for Bloemfontein’s premier athlete, Wayde van Niekerk, when he, as the world record holder and reigning champion, failed to qualify for the final of the 400m sprint for men at the Olympic Games in Tokyo on Monday.
Five years ago, Van Niekerk had the world at his feet after clinching the gold and breaking the American great, Michael Johnson’s long-standing world record at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Just over a year later, Van Niekerk sustained a very serious ACL injury during a celebrity touch rugby match at Newlands in Cape Town. This well-documented injury threatened to bring a premature end to Van Niekerk’s career, however, through surgery, rehabilitation and pure guts and determination, he managed to get back on to the world stage and ultimately qualified for the present Olympics.
His time of 45.14 in the semi-final in Tokyo is a long way off the world record of 43.03 he set in Rio, but it is easy to forget that a lot of changes happened in the lead up to the Olympics, and these could have been a factor. One of the most significant changes was the split from his long-time coach, Ans Botha, when he joined the top USA coach, Lance Brauman, earlier in the year.
Speaking to renowned Bloemfontein coach Derek van Rensburg, he pointed out that an athlete and a coach take at least three years to build a relationship, and this is something Van Niekerk will not have to fall back on.
There has been murmuring that Van Niekerk has reached the twilight of his career. Van Rensburg added that there are many factors that will come into play. First and most importantly will be the management of Van Niekerk over the next three years leading into the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
Van Niekerk has only just turned 29 in July. The legendary Usain Bolt called it a day at the age of 31, however, Johnson hung up his golden spikes at the age of 41.
The Olympics is always a dream, but 2022 is another big year for athletics with both the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and the World Athletics World Championships in Eugene, Oregon taking place, and this is surely the goal for now.
Belinda van der Merwe, another athletics coach in the city, pointed out that Van Niekerk had just 10 months to prepare and qualify for the Olympics and that he has the mental strength to return to the podium as soon as next year.
“Wayde had just 10 months to compete in meets before the Olympics. My experience as a coach has taught me that the more athletes compete in competitions, the better they are prepared at all levels. There is a big difference in training sessions and competing against athletes of the same calibre.
“All South Africans know that Wayde is mentally strong, he has a lot of fight in him. When you compete regularly, your body gets used to controlling the tension and adrenalin a lot better. In an interview in 2020 he mentioned that he wants to break his world record of 43.03, and that tells me that he still has a goal he hasn’t achieved. I’m convinced that he will do everything in his power to achieve that before he retires.
“I believe with thorough preparation, planning and competing in competitions regularly we will see Wayde back on the podium at next year’s Commonwealth Games.” – MORGAN PIEK