CAPE TOWN - Wayde van Niekerk will finally be back on an athletics track on Saturday, and he will be joined by six other South Africans, including Akani Simbine, at the Meeting de Madrid.
The 400m world record-holder has yet to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in any event, having only run 200m races this season following instructions from new American coach Lance Brauman.
The 28-year-old pulled up with a hip issue during a 200m event at the Adidas Boston Boost Games last month, but said afterwards that it was “nothing serious”.
That race was on May 23, and he hasn’t run competitively since. But the 400m Olympic champion has been hard at work in training at his Florida base, where he works alongside 200m world champion Noah Lyles and women’s 400m star Shaunae Miller-Uibo.
With a June 29 cut-off date for qualification, Van Niekerk will need to run a time of 44.90 seconds on Saturday to make it to Japan. He is set to compete at a meeting in Lucerne, Switzerland on June 29 as well, although there is no 400m race on the schedule – so he could run in either the 100m or 200m.
Van Niekerk will face a strong field in Madrid that could push him to the qualifying time. Anthony Zambrano of Colombia is the fastest athlete in the field this year, with a time of 44.57 in late May, while Luguelin Santos of the Dominican Republic (44.11) and Spain’s Oscar Husillos (44.73) also have personal best times of under 45 seconds.
South African champion Zakithi Nene will also part in the 400m, and he will hope to improve his personal best time of 45.03 seconds in order to qualify for the Olympics as well.
Simbine will be joined by two Team SA teammates, Gift Leotlela and Clarence Munyai, in the 100m event where he is the firm favourite. But because there are 13 entries, semi-finals will be held.
All three South Africans will have to get past stiff competition from the likes of Panama’s Alonso Edward (season’s best of 10.09), Sri Lankan Mudiyanselage Abeykoon (10.15) and Italian Filippo Tortu (10.18), but there will be a fierce battle between themselves as well.
Leotlela is the quickest in 2021 with 9.94, but had a disqualification in his last race in Marseille on June 9. “Stupid mistake from my side. It hurts me to even think about what happened there because I ran well in the heats (10.27) and I had the fastest time of the day without even running the final – which is what hurts the most. But that’s how we learn,” he told Independent Media afterwards.
Simbine’s best time this year is 9.99, and he will come into the Madrid meeting with good confidence after winning his first international race of the season at the Rome/Florence Diamond League event last Thursday in a time of 10.08.
His coach Werner Prinsloo has previously told Independent Media that Simbine was building up slowly, with the aim of peaking at the Tokyo Olympics. But the 27-year-old may look to put Leotlela in his place and show who the leading South African sprinter is.
Munyai is a 200m specialist who has already qualified for Tokyo in that distance, but he could also push for a spot in the 100m, where Simbine, Leotlela and Shaun Maswanganyi are the current three leading SA athletes for the Olympics. Munyai does have a personal best of 10.10, so he will need to go quicker as the qualifying mark is 10.05.
Two other South Africans will also be running in Madrid on Saturday night – Antonio Alkana in the 110m hurdles, and Taylon Bieldt in the women’s 400m hurdles.
In addition, Caster Semenya will look for an Olympic qualifying time of 15 minutes and 10 seconds (15:10.00) in the 5 000m at a meeting in Regensburg, Germany on Saturday night.