CAPE TOWN - DEFENDING champion Wayde van Niekerk looked in good shape on Sunday to almost ‘jog’ into the semi-finals of the 400m at the Tokyo Olympics.
Van Niekerk – sporting a cool new hairstyle with a patch of mustard orange dyed hair – said before the race that his body was feeling good after a few weeks of “non-stop training”, having had to withdraw from his last scheduled race in Hungary in early July due to a back issue.
But the 29-year-old seemed to have shaken off the problem, based on Sunday’s performance.
Van Niekerk went out quickly from lane seven, having first had to watch Kenyan Emmanuel Korir being disqualified from lane eight for jumping out of the blocks well before the starting gun had been fired.
#Athletics Wayde van Niekerk (45.25) the only South African to advance to the 400m semi-finals— Ashfak Mohamed (@ashfakmohamed) August 1, 2021
Unfortunately, Zakithi Nene (45.74) and Thapelo Phora (45.83) have missed out on qualification@IOLsport @IOL #Olympics #Tokyo2020
The South African went through his usual pre-race routine, raising his arms into the air and wriggling his fingers, before getting down into the blocks.
He steadily built up a lead, having had the second-quickest reaction time in the field at the start, but was then caught by Botswana’s Leungo Scotch at the 300m mark.
Australia’s Steven Solomon and Anthony Zambrano of Colombia then actually went past Van Niekerk with about 50 metres to go, but the South African quickly put in a little spurt to edge ahead of Scotch before looking around to the rest of the competitors to make sure of the third and last automatic qualification spot in a time of 45.25 seconds.
Zambrano, who beat Van Niekerk in Lucerne, Switzerland in late June, won the heat in a time of 44.87, with Solomon second in 44.94.
The other two South Africans in the 400m, Zakithi Nene and Thapelo Phora, missed out on qualification for the semi-finals.
Nene made a strong start to his heat from lane eight, but faded in the final 20m to finish fifth in a time of 45.74. American Randolph Ross – who has the fastest time in the world this year of 43.85 – pipped Nene to fourth spot, but surprisingly missed out on qualification as one of the ‘fastest losers’ due to a sluggish time of 45.67.
Phora stormed out of the blocks in his heat, and was actually in the lead coming into the home straight. But he had gone out too fast, and faded quickly over the final 50 metres and was passed by Machel Cedenio of Trinidad and Tobago, as well as Italian Edoardo Scotti, to finish fifth in 45.83 – a season’s best, but not enough to advance.
Van Niekerk will be in action again on Monday afternoon, with the three semi-finals scheduled for 1.05pm, 1.13pm and 1.21pm SA times. The final is set for Thursday at 2pm SA time.