CAPE TOWN - TO say Akani Simbine has unfinished business with major championship finals is putting it mildly.
While he was able to win the 2018 Commonwealth Games title, those 100m world crowns have eluded him ever since he became a serious contender at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
On that occasion, Simbine clocked a quick 9.94 seconds, but it was only good enough for fifth place as Usain Bolt stormed to victory in 9.81, with Justin Gatlin taking the silver in 9.89 and Andre de Grasse third in 9.91.
The 27-year-old was fifth again at the 2017 world championships in London (10.01) and fourth at the 2019 event in 9.93.
There is no doubt that Simbine would have to run his fastest ever time in a final if he wants to claim a medal, and probably a personal best to push for the gold.
So, what will be different this time around, when he lines up for the heats today, at 12.45pm South African time? Well, he is in top form going into the event, having set a new African record of 9.84 seconds earlier this month in Hungary.
Most importantly, Simbine feels that the experience gained from all those disappointments in previous finals have prepared him well for Tokyo.
“Over the years, I’ve gained a lot of experience being in finals – world champs finals, and being Commonwealth Games champion and making the Olympic final. Just learning from the greats and trying to pick their minds and pick up from their experiences, to better myself,” the Tuks Sport athlete said from the Japanese capital.
“I think right now, where I am right now as an athlete, I’ve gained so much knowledge and gained so much as a sprinter to bring it to this point where I am a mature sprinter. I know how to control races. I know how to be a sprinter in a championship, and I know how to run a championship.”
His coach, Werner Prinsloo, has previously told Independent Media that timing was everything in getting Simbine in prime shape for the Olympics. That is why they didn’t enter him into too many events in Europe over the last few months, as he wanted to be at his best for Tokyo.
The 9.84 in Hungary was an important step to give him confidence that he can challenge the American trio of Trayvon Bromell (9.77), Marvin Bracy (9.85), Ronnie Baker (9.85) and Fred Kerley (9.86).
Bracy is not in Tokyo, with Bromell, Baker and Kerley finishing in the top three at the US Olympic Trials.
“It’s been a tough process – ups and downs, highs and lows. But it’s been a beautiful process. I think there are more highs and lows, and for Coach (Prinsloo) and I, it’s been a journey where we are both learning because we didn’t know anything about the track circuit or athletics and anything like that,” Simbine said.
“But it’s been worth it. Just missing out on medals, just posting away from or just (missing out) on third spot at world champs… Just missing out on a medal at the Olympics, when I didn’t expect to be challenging for a medal.
“That for us was huge, and now it brings us to a part where we are feeling confident enough to be like, okay, we want to go and fight for a podium finish – we want to fight to be the fastest man in the world.
“It’s very important just to pace yourself through the rounds, and make sure you are building yourself in every round to the final – making sure you are activating the body so that when you get to the final, it is at its best.
“The experience is going to help a lot, and knowing that I know how to run championship rounds and go through the rounds, get to the final and make sure my body is at its best when it’s needed.”
Following today’s 100m heats – where the other South African entrants are Gift Leotlela (personal best of 9.94) and Shaun Maswanganyi (10.04) – Simbine should advance through to his big day tomorrow, where the semi-finals begin at 12.15pm SA time, with the final at 2.50pm.
The other possible medal contender in action today is Ruswahl Samaai, who starts his quest for a podium place in the long jump at 12.10pm SA time.
* The first South Africans in action on the athletics track yesterday had mixed fortunes, with men’s 400m hurdler Sokwakhana Zazini advancing to the semi-finals in a time of 49.51, while women’s 5 000m athlete Dominique Scott-Efurd’s season’s best mark of 15:13.94 was not enough to progress further.