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Wayde van Niekerk insists he's fit enough to slug out three full rounds

30 July 2021 - 15:40 By david isaacson
South African sprint superstar Wayde Van Niekerk.
South African sprint superstar Wayde Van Niekerk.
Image: Roger Sedres/ImageSA/Gallo Images

Wayde van Niekerk begins the defence of his Olympic 400m crown at the Tokyo Games on Sunday insisting he is fit enough to slug it out for three full rounds.

He will need to get through the heats on Sunday‚ semifinals on Monday and then deliver the pièce de résistance in the final on Thursday.

Three races in five days seems like a hectic schedule for someone who in two seasons has done just five 400s‚ with the narrowest gap between two races being 10 days.

Van Niekerk‚ whose right knee had to be surgically reconstructed after injuring it in a game of tag rugby in late 2017‚ hasn’t had the opportunity before now to prove he has the legs to go the championship distance‚ but he’s confident he can.

“I believe [I can run three rounds]‚” said the owner of the 43.03sec world record. “That’s why I’ve taken this challenge to be here at the Games and make sure I compete competitively.

“My mentality has never been to be here to just be here. I’m here to compete.”

Van Niekerk ran three 400m races last season and this year he’s done two‚ qualifying for Tokyo with his 44.56 effort on June 19 that earned him second place in Madrid‚ and then a 44.87 that gave him the win in Lucerne at the end of the month.

Van Niekerk has looked sharp in some 200m races this year‚ but in both 400m outings he looked a little sluggish on the home straight‚ suggesting he needed to sharpen his fitness.

He is 10th on the world list for 2021 and he is expected to face tough competition from the likes of reigning world champion Steve Gardiner of the Bahamas‚ Americans Michael Cherry and Michael Norman‚ Colombia’s Anthony Zambrano and 2012 Olympic champion Kirani James of Grenada.

Van Niekerk’s 2020 campaign in Europe was shortened after he contracted the virus soon after arriving there‚ and then this year he also struggled with what he termed “inconsistency with my body now and then”.

Van Niekerk‚ who moved to the US to switch coaches earlier this year‚ pulled up in a 200m race in Boston while experiencing a tightness in his hip and withdrew just before a 400m race in Europe early this month after feeling a stiffness in his lower back. That translates into two of his last four scheduled races.

But he pointed out he wasn’t the only athlete who had struggled with niggles. “I’ve been putting out quality times this whole year. I’ve seen a lot of professional athletes that had some setbacks here and there these last few months.

“And also making the move to the US I actually saw way more top athletes taking a bit of a niggle break‚ so that definitely put me in a comfortable position to know that I’m perfectly on the right track.”

Van Niekerk added that cold weather made it more difficult for him to recover from racing‚ but with warm conditions expected in Tokyo‚ that wouldn’t be an issue.

The father-to-be said he wanted to create a legacy for his future son. “This does open up a different vision in terms of why I’m doing this and appreciating it and being able to put out a legacy that would make my son proud and make sure that when my son gets to see what I’ve achieved and what I’ve done in life that it somewhat inspires him one day when he goes out and chases his dreams and I’ll have some stories to share with him and build a special bond.”