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Track Time in Tokyo

We're amped for the 2021 Summer Olympics! See SA's top contenders here.

One thing the pandemic has given South African Olympic hopefuls is time. A 400m world-record holder has recovered from a potentially career-ending injury, and an 800m star embroiled in a legal battle is exploring other options. A Comrades darling has proved herself an anomaly by producing the second-fast ever time by a South African woman in the marathon. Can they pick up where they left off?

Akani Simbine, Olympic hopeful


Only four people have dipped under 10 seconds in the 100m this year but Commonwealth and African champion Akani has done it twice, having opened his season with a blistering 9.91 on 15 March at the Athletics Gauteng North Championships – that was his second fastest time over the distance and two 100ths of a second shy of his national record.

He had gone back to his roots, starting his racing season in South Africa, then heading to Europe. That worked well for him in 2016, when he ran the national record of 9.89 seconds at the Gyulai István Memorial in Székesfehérvár, Hungary, and subsequently finished fifth in 9.94 seconds in the 100m final of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

As Covid-19 restrictions delayed the training and racing plans of athletes, Akani only got to Italy in August, where he ran one heat and four finals.

In his first outing at the Meeting Pro Athlé Tour de Marseille, France, on 3 September, Akani clocked 10.31 seconds into a headwind. He went on to win the final in 10.19 seconds.

Five days later, at the 56th Palio Città Della Quercia Meeting, Akani notched up his third consecutive win in 10.17 seconds. Finding his racing form, he achieved his fourth win on the trot in 10.2 seconds at the Gala dei Castelli, Switzerland, on 15 September. Akani brought the curtain down on his European season with a 9.96-second win at the Golden Gala Pietro Mennea, Rome, on 17 September – in the process, he took the scalps of two very prominent

athletes, Arthur Cissé and Michael Rodgers.

There is no fear of Akani peaking now, as he has gone back into winter training ahead of the Olympics and will start sharpening up in April. He is due a medal, but the 100m is probably one of the most wide-open fields you can look at right now, with the exclusion of the American Christian Coleman, who has been banned for two years due to a whereabouts testing failure.

Caster Semenya Olympic hopeful


The two-time Olympic champion recently lost an appeal against the restriction of testosterone in female athletes, meaning she cannot compete in distances from the 400m to the mile (1.6km), which are her best events. At a press conference in early 2020, Caster said she would switch to the 200m. In March, she won a 200m race with a PB of 23.49, but she needs to shave off almost three-quarters of a second to get an Olympic qualifier (22.8). Rumour has it she is considering the 5 000m.

The pandemic will have given her extra time to teach her muscles that explosive action. Once she hits her stride and her top-end we do not know what she is capable of. Caster wants to qualify for the Olympics, but she is not going to lose any sleep if she does not. Her fight is with World Athletics and the fact that they want her to be something that she is not, she said at the press conference. We can argue the science till the cows come home, but those were her words.

SA Men's 400m Relay Team


I spent a weekend with them at that relay camp in February 2020, and you would speak to senior athletes Simon Magakwe, Henrico Bruintjies and Akani, and they would say, “We are not just going to get a medal; we are going for gold.” It is more a deep, deep belief than it is bravado. The team is a medal prospect for us, but it depends on how well the country’s sprinters have handled the pandemic, and also on how head sprint relay coach Paul Gorries formulates his team.

Akani is mature for his age, Thando Dlodlo is fast in the first 50m, Henrico is also fast out of the blocks, Simon, a sub-10-second guy who has come close to hitting sub-10 again, could

take on the back straight, and there is no better bend runner in the world right now than Clarence. Waiting in the wings are world 200m bronze medallist Anaso Jobodwana, newly crowned South African under-20 100m record holder Phathutshedzo Maswanganyi, and Wayde van Niekerk, who could make Paul’s team selection difficult. But that is one hell of a (nice) headache to have!

Clarence Munyai, SA 400m relay team member


On paper, Clarence is a beast. The problem is that he needs to convert what he has shown in league meetings into top performances at a national and international level.

His talent and ability are not in question, but his mental fortitude is. I know that at the beginning of the year, Akani was spending lots of time with Clarence to guide him. It was evident at a sprint-relay camp both athletes attended in February 2020 that he deferred a lot to Akani and hung on every word he said. That is the chink in his armour, and unless he changes his mindset, he will always be the one doing the chasing.

Wayde van Niekerk, 400m world record holder


I think that for Wayde to return to his former world-record-breaking times, it is going to be more difficult than people think. We will only know if it is possible when he races with the top guys when running a low 44-second to a sub-44-second race is a prerequisite to winning.

After his first international 400m race in three years in Switzerland, where he won in 45.58 seconds, a rusty Van Niekerk returned to the track in South Africa in November and raced a few times in Potchefstroom. On 3 November, he ran a 400m race in which he pushed so hard on the blocks that he broke them and stumbled but still went on to win in 45.89 seconds. A week later, he was going to race the 60m and the 150m, but after clocking 6.62 seconds in the 60m, the heavens opened, and his 150m race was cancelled. Wayde has called time on his 2020 season and will now go back to winter training as he prepares for the 2021 Olympics.

“We did consider competing again in Potch this week [referring to a 300m race, which was scheduled for 17 November 2020], but we have achieved what we had hoped to get out of these last couple of races,” he said. “We know what to focus on now, so we can go back to training and concentrate on preparing for the 2021 season. I look forward to racing again

next year.”

Wayde was a premature baby who doctors did not expect would survive, and he also had a hard upbringing. That is where his mental fortitude would have grown; in his case, it made him rather than broke him.

He never wanted to do the 400 because he was always injured, but, all of a sudden, realised he was damn good at it.

He started competing in the 400m relatively late in his sprinting career – most athletes, once you have identified they are 400m sprinters, will usually begin competing earlier, in their late teens.

Remember: Wayde achieved his world record having started his race in lane eight, and dominated the 400m from 2014 to the end of 2017 when he picked up an ACL injury. He is

unbelievably talented, which is why you cannot discount him – there is no hope in hell you could do that. He is a gold medal contender until we see otherwise, and says he wants to break his world record of 43.03 seconds to become the first person to break the magical 43-second barrier.

Elroy Gelant, Olympic hopeful


Elroy struggled at the London Marathon due to sciatica, pulling out at the 28km mark, and is now receiving treatment.

He will target another qualifying marathon in March or April 2021 intending to run 2:08, and he has represented South Africa on a whole host of occasions including at the 2012 Indoor and 2013 Outdoor World Championships.

He is also the country’s record holder in the 5,000m, with a time of 13:04.88.

I witnessed one of his training sessions in Potchefstroom. He had been running at 3.00/km and faster because he would have needed to run at 3.05/km to break 2:10.

Gerda Steyn, Olympic hopeful


The current comrades and two oceans women’s champion produced the second-fast ever time by a South African woman in the marathon in London (her time: 2:26.51).

Gerda recently ran the Mid Cheshire 5-K, UK, in 15.44. She is an anomaly due to her ultra-distance background, but she is possibly a top-ten contender based on her performance in London. She wanted to run 2:24, but the horrible weather put paid to that. She is capable of running that time, if not faster, and will probably run another marathon in March or April as part of her final preparation for Tokyo.

Stephen Mokoka, Olympic hopeful


When he came 5th in the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, in 2019, it was the best performance by a South African at the World Marathon Champs. The previous best was by Ian Syster, who finished 7th in 2003 in France – now, there was an athlete who had so much potential, but we lost him tragically when he died in a car accident.

Stephen is building into the form of his life, having finished seventh at the recent World Half Marathon Championships in Gdynia, Poland. He shaved 14 seconds off his national record, clocking 59:36 to lead team South African to fifth overall. That time means he is a 2:05 marathoner, and with his experience from Doha, and because championship races are tactical, Stephen has got to be a dangerous medal contender.

You cannot write him off. He should be in the mix, especially if he runs the Olympic Marathon as he did his race in Doha and Poland. The only difference is that he will face competitors like Eliud Kipchoge, Kenenisa Bekele and all those fast guys who were not in Doha. But remember: tactics will play a prominent role, as there will not be pacemakers.

Written | By Manfred Seidler


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