Half of Wayde van Niekerk’s battle has been won and South Africa have another World Championships gold medal.
By Karien Jonckheere
The world record holder successfully defended his 400m title, building up an impressive lead down the final straight in London and eventually easing off across the line to win in 43.98.
But Van Niekerk immediately went into recovery mode – with his next massive task, of doubling up with 200m gold, still lying ahead of him.
The Olympic champion admitted afterwards that was very much at the forefront of his mind, even while crossing the finish line.
“It was quite freezing. I struggled to get properly warmed up and ready. I think for about 200m I was doubting my momentum and the last 150m I tried putting in an extra gear but I just couldn’t catch my stride until about the last few metres,” he said after the race.
“Then I unconsciously looked up to the screen and noticed how far ahead I was and immediately I thought of my health. Realising I still have another two more rounds to run – I thought if the times aren’t going to come, there’s no point in me pushing it all the way to my limits and I just allowed the race to go through to the finish line,” he added, pointing to the 200m semifinal he will run on Wednesday and the final on Thursday.
There was to be no southern African sweep of the podium as Steven Gardiner of the Bahamas took silver in the 400m in 44.41 and Qatar’s Abdalelah Haroun the bronze in a season’s best of 44.48.
Speaking about Botswanan Isaac Makwala’s absence from the race under somewhat controversial circumstances, Van Niekerk said: “It was definitely a heartbreaking moment – it’s two good competitors this year – both Kirani James and Isaac Makwala having to withdraw through illnesses. I wish them both a speedy recovery
“I saw him before the 200 heats and the only thing I could think of was wrapping my arms around him and telling him he should get well soon. I wouldn’t want that for any competitor. As much as we all strive to leave with gold medals, we also want to go out there and have the best guys on the track with us. It’s such a massive pity but he’s a strong athlete – I’ve seen him break through a lot of challenges – and at same time I have a lot of sympathy for him.”
As for the task that still lies ahead of him, Van Niekerk added: “I’m very excited for the 200 that’s coming up. I love it! The body just needs to be ready and I’ll give it my best shot.”
Meanwhile, there was disappointment for Wenda Nel, who wasn’t quick enough to make it through to the 400m hurdles finals. She finished third in her semifinal, so missing out on automatic qualification, and her time of 55.70 was not quick enough to see her through as one of the fastest losers.
“I made a slight error just before my last hurdle so I think that’s what cost me today,” she said afterwards. “I really felt good, I thought I executed well and I came back strong. I started picking up around hurdle seven and eight but then over-strode between nine and 10 and I lost rhythm over hurdle 10 and just couldn’t catch up enough.”
As for the chilly London evening, Nel added: “The weather isn’t ideal but it’s the same for everyone so it’s not something we can use as an excuse. I’ve raced in much colder weather but I think that’s why the times aren’t that quick. If I had just executed a bit better over that last hurdle I think a 55.3 or 55.2 would have got me through.
“Today was just bad luck for me I believe – it wasn’t that I wasn’t strong enough or didn’t put in enough work. It was just a technical error.”
Earlier in the evening, there was an anxious wait for Stellenbosch student Justine Palframan in the 200m.
The 2015 World Student Games 400m champion finished fourth in her heat and then had to watch the remaining five heats to see whether her time of 23.35 would be good enough to qualify for the semifinals as one of the fastest fourth-placed athletes.
It turned out to be and she went through as the 21st fastest qualifier overall. Palframan will contest the 200m semifinal on Thursday evening.
After Van Niekerk’s gold South Africa have moved up to third on the World Championships medal table behind Kenya and the USA.