Van Niekerk might save the SA team from what could be a disappointing showpiece, with medal chances few and far between.
Having been all but written off, nearly five years after ripping his knee in a touch rugby match, Wayde van Niekerk fired a warning at his opponents ahead of the 400m semifinals at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene.
Van Niekerk was slick out the blocks and looked to be in cruise control in his first-round heat on Sunday night, winning easily in 45.18 seconds.
After winning the one-lap world title in 2017 and 2019, as well as gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, he said he was hungry to return to the top of the podium as he continued his comeback from a lengthy injury battle.
“Once you’ve tasted it, you always want it, and I’ve achieved gold three times at major championships, so I know it’s possible and I know the feeling,” Van Niekerk told FloTrack.
“That’s what you want, and what you’re striving towards, but every championship deserves respect, so I’m just allowing myself to gradually go through the rounds, and we’ll see what happens.”
After moving to the US in February last year, leaving long-time coach Ans Botha to join Lance Brauman’s training group in Florida, Van Niekerk was eliminated in the semifinals at the Tokyo Olympics.
This year, he withdrew from the national championships in Cape Town in April with a hamstring niggle and he pulled up during a 200m race in Italy in May.
And though he clocked 44.58 over 400m at a meeting in Georgia last month, he entered the global championships as a complete dark horse.
Back in form
While he wasn’t lightning fast, however, completing his heat in Eugene more than two seconds outside his six-year-old world record (43.03), he looked smooth and comfortable throughout the race, and it was clear he was back in form.
He was set to turn out again in the penultimate round on Wednesday, along with fellow South African Zakhiti Nene.
“It was tough getting used to a total new setup, and it has taken my body quite a while to adjust to it, but things are gradually getting to where I need to be,” said Van Niekerk, who turned 30 last week.
“The environment I’m in is very professional, and I have great training partners, so I think it has been more of a blessing than a challenge.”