CAPE TOWN - WAYDE van Niekerk says he “shut down too soon” in his 400m heat, but he was satisfied with his performance and qualification for the semi-finals at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday.
The defending champion and world record-holder admitted that he was nervous at the start of the race, having had a disrupted build-up due to a lack of events caused by injury niggles.
He had pulled up towards the end with a sore hip following a 200m race in Boston a few months ago, and then withdrew from a 400m event in Hungary in early July with lower discomfort.
The 29-year-old, whose world record stands at 43.03 seconds – which secured him the gold medal at the 2016 Rio Games – had to put all of that behind him when he lined up in lane seven at the Olympic Stadium on Sunday.
He also had to refocus for his heat after Kenya’s Emmanuel Korir was disqualified for a false start alongside him in lane eight.
Van Niekerk came out strongly at the beginning, and eased into the lead over the first half of the race.
But thinking he had secured one of the top-three automatic qualification spots for the semi-finals, the South African slowed down over the next 150 metres, and was caught by Botswana’s Leungo Scotch, Colombia’s Anthony Zambrano and Australian Steven Solomon.
That saw Van Niekerk having to recover quickly, and he went past Scotch over the last few metres to finish third in 45.25 seconds.
Michael Cherry of the United States was the fastest qualifier with a time of 44.82.
“It was nice. I had quite a bit of nerves that I had to shake out today. Had a good 200 metres… shut down a bit too soon, but I’m sure the more I do this, the more I’ll start getting more control,” he said afterwards.
“So, I’m in the semis, and (now I must) make sure I make up for the lost time now. But I feel positive, I feel good.
“I thought the Botswana boy (Scotch) was going to keep his pace, that I could have run off of him. But then I saw the two guys on the inside started picking up, which I kinda expected.
“So, I thought I could catch the Botswana boy at the end. But to my surprise, the Australian runner came through as well. So, I got the top three, and that’s what’s important right now.”
Two other South Africans in the 400m line-up, Zakithi Nene (45.74) and Thapelo Phora (45.83), both looked on course for top-three spots in their respective heats, but faded in the closing stages to be eliminated from the competition.
Phora’s time was a season’s best effort, but SA champion Nene was well short of his personal best of 45.03, which he produced in May this year.
Anything close to that time would have ensured his passage to Monday’s semi-finals, but now he has to concentrate on the 4x400m relay later in the week.
“I made that race a little too difficult for myself. My first 200, I was finding it a bit slower than expected. I think I got thrown off by the guy on my outside, you know, and yeah, I just couldn’t respond at the end,” the 23-year-old Nene said.
“I’m stuck with a 45.7, so I am not too happy with that. But it is what it is, you know.”
Van Niekerk will be in action again on Monday afternoon, with the three semi-finals scheduled for 1.05pm, 1.13pm and 1.21pm SA times. The final is set for Thursday at 2pm SA time.