The man who produced one of the greatest performances in athletics history in 2016 is back! South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk continued his return from a career-threatening knee injury suffered in 2017 with a low-key win in Bloemfontein.
The win itself, in a hand-timed 10.20sec in a 100m race on grass at a University of Free State meeting, is not the most important part of the story. It’s more the fact that the 27-year-old Olympic champion came through unscathed and showing good early-season form as he begins his quest to defend the title he won in Rio, four years ago, in Tokyo later this year.
Van Niekerk smashed the Olympic and world 400m records of 43.18 set by American Michael Johnson in 1999 when he clocked 43.03 at Rio and was pleased with his comeback performance in Bloemfontein, his first race in public this year.
‘It is good to be back running and I am satisfied with my time. Thanks again to everyone who has assisted in my recovery,’ he said.
Van Niekerk damaged a knee during October 2017 while playing a celebrity touch rugby match in Cape Town that preceded a Test between South Africa and New Zealand. His rehabilitation included medical treatment in the United States, Qatar and South Africa, where he is coached by ‘Tannie’ Ans Botha.
The injury prevented him seeking a third consecutive world title in Doha last year after triumphs in Beijing in 2015 and in London two years later. Speaking in Berlin at the weekend ahead of the Laureus awards ceremony, Johnson said it would be ‘very difficult’ for Van Niekerk to successfully defend his Olympics title.
‘An athlete who misses two seasons through an injury usually takes one season to get back into shape,’ said the four-time Olympics champion. ‘Therefore, expectations around Wayde should not be too high as it will be a huge challenge for him to be at his best in Japan. It is mentally tough to stage a comeback in an Olympic year, especially when many of your rivals for medals are clocking really fast times.
‘That is not to say, however, that Wayde has no chance of emulating his feat of four years ago and winning another 400m gold medal. He is a special athlete who may not follow the normal patterns of recovery. I guess we will just have to wait and see how he performs,’ added Johnson.