CAPE TOWN - Wayde van Niekerk says he hopes to be a “shining light” for South Africa after beginning the defence of his 400m Olympic title in Tokyo on yesterday.
The 29-year-old world record-holder has had to deal with a number of injury problems over the last few years, but is determined to prove that he can still compete at the highest level by winning a second gold medal.
Van Niekerk sped into the lead in his heat yesterday, but had to put on some pace on the home straight to secure the third automatic qualifying spot for the semi-finals in a time of 45.25 seconds.
The two other South Africans in the event, Zakithi Nene (45.74) and Thapelo Phora (45.83) were unable to advance to the next round.
The 400m semi-finals take place today at 1.05pm, 1.13pm and 1.21pm, with the final Thursday at 2pm SA time.
Van Niekerk has been training in the US and Europe over the last few months, but has kept an eye on things back home, with the Covid-19 death toll now well over the 70 000 mark, while the violence and unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng has caused billions of rands worth damages and led to loss of life.
Swimmer Tatjana Schoenmaker lifted the mood of the nation with her world-record victory in the 200m breaststroke last week, and so too did the Springboks in beating the British and Irish Lions 27-9 in the second Test on Saturday to level the series at 1-1.
Now Van Niekerk hopes to do the same in Tokyo, like he did at Rio 2016.
“It’s definitely been a tough few years, and these last two years for the entire world. My country’s going through so much right now, so much stresses, so much disappointments and pains that I saw,” he said yesterday.
“I just want to try my best to be a shining light at this moment, fighting through my setbacks and injuries, and just being somewhat of a positive towards the rest of the country.
“I was aiming for top two (in the heat), but obviously that didn’t happen. But I mean, I’m still in the Games and I’m still in the run for the medal, and that’s what’s important.”
Before yesterday’s heat, Van Niekerk said: “I would love to say something inspirational, but it comes a bit deep as well as we are losing people, losing family members, loved ones.”