Wayde van Niekerk’s 400m Olympic title defence is over after the South African crashed out in the semi-finals at Tokyo 2020.
The result is a disappointing end to a bitter five-year journey for the 29-year-old. After his immense gold-medal race at Rio 2016, with the world seemingly at his feet, he would infamously injure his knee in a celebrity touch rugby game only a few months later. A devastating string of setbacks has kept him out of the sport almost entirely until now – only managing to achieve an Olympic qualifying time in the final lead-up.
His time of 45.14 was well short of his world record of 43.03 from the previous Games.
South African sprint sensation Wayde van Niekerk says that he is “pain free” and back running as he continues to recover from a lengthy knee injury.
Van Niekerk, who stunned the world at the 2016 Rio Olympics by breaking Michael Johnson’s world record in the 400m, has been sidelined since October when he tore the meniscus and ACL in his right knee while playing a celebrity touch rugby match at Newlands ahead of the Springboks’ Rugby Championship clash against the All Blacks.
World 800m record holder David Rudisha, four-time world champion Ezekiel Kemboi and Olympics 5,000m champion Vivian Cheruiyot have been inducted into the Confederation of African Athletics (CAA) Hall of Fame.
The three athletes who have one thing in common besides their feats at both national and international, they are all Olympic gold medalists in their respective races.
This accolade was bestowed at the welcoming Dinner for athletes and officials participating at the 21st edition of the African Athletics Championships that is being held in Asaba, Nigeria.
According to Nigerian newspaper The Punch, out of the 16 inductees only two were in attendance – Nigerian Blessing Okagbare-Ighoteguonor and Olusoji Fasuba.
The publicationcontinued saying that the event started five hours late, which forced athletes to stay away.
The Publication further reported that the Ethiopians and Kenyans did not attend as they arrived in Asaba late on Tuesday after being stranded in Lagos for two days.
International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) President Sebastian Coe, CAA President Kalkaba Malboum and members of his executive committee, State Governor Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa, and top government officials at Federal and State level, diplomats and the LOC led by its Chairman Solomon Ogba graced the occasion.
Ethiopia inductees were led by world record holder and champion Genzebe Dibabaa, Almaz Ayana an Olympics and World Champions and long distance legend Kenenisa Bekele.
Other Ethiopians who were inducted are World Champion Tirunesh Dibaba and former world 5000m record holder Mesert Defar.
South Africa duo of Caster Semanya and Wayde van Niekerk both Olympics and World Champions were also inducted though Nieker is still is still recovering from a knee injury, which he sustained during a celebrity rugby match last year.
Wayde van Niekerk has pledged to come back better than ever after admitting he will miss the whole of 2018 with injury.
Billed as athletics’ next big hope in the post-Usain Bolt era, the South African suffered a serious knee injury in a celebrity tag rugby match last October.
And seven months after undergoing surgery, he told Standard Sport: “The focus is now on next year and when I return next year, I want it to be like I never left.
“In fact, I have no doubt that I will be a better athlete than I was before the injury. I can refresh my mind and rebuild and the next 10 years I can get back-to-back titles and continue to go from strength to strength.”
The 25-year-old was branded “a knucklehead” by two-time Olympic champion Edwin Moses for taking part in the rugby game in which he got injured.
And Van Niekerk admitted there had been no shortage of thinking ‘what if?’ on his part.
He said: “When it happened, I was quite optimistic but really I was only hoping for a miracle. And that was followed by a day or two of regret.”
It ruled him out of the Commonwealth Games and, among other things, a return to London for the Athletics World Cup in July, an event that is now missing arguably its biggest draw.
However, Van Niekerk has his sights set on a return to the London Stadium where he was crowned world champion over 400metres last summer.
“The World Cup is what athletics needs,” he said.
“It’s another big competition and shows growth in the sport. As an athlete, you want to dominate and conquer and that in London would be another stage for me on which to do it.”
Longer term, Van Niekerk’s focus is on the defence of his 400m world title in Doha next year and his Olympic gold in 2020 — and the potential to target global crowns in all sprint disciplines.
“I love investing in all three events [the 100, 200 and 400m],” he said.
“I want to stretch the limits in all three, I want to get my 400m down to 42 seconds.”
As for a potential treble at world and Olympic level, he added: “It’s not what I can and can’t do at this stage. If the times keep coming down, there’s opportunities in all three.”
Who’s the world’s best man over 200m? Should be simple enough. Turkey’s Ramil Guliyev won the world title in London last year.
But, hold on, 10 people recorded faster times in 2017. One of them – Andre de Grasse – won silver behind Usain Bolt at Rio 2016, before a hamstring injury denied him a shot at the worlds. The Canadian, then?
But what about South African star Wayde van Niekerk who had two of the four fastest times of 2017? Or Yohan Blake who is still the second fastest of all time? Or perhaps American Christian Coleman, whose upward trajectory continues apace.
From April, the IAAF intends to sort such crowded scenes into an athletics world order.
What’s the change?
A new world ranking system – similar to those seen in tennis or golf – will provide a run-down of the best athletes in each event.
So in the same way that tennis’ tour organisers, through heavy-duty number crunching, define Roger Federer and Simona Halep as the best players in the world, the IAAF will rank their stars.
It won’t end the eternal bar-room debate, but it will attempt to provide an objective answer.
What rides on it?
Not just prestige. Qualification for IAAF events will move away from obtaining one-off qualifications times, distances and heights and instead be based on athletes’ position in the rankings.
No longer will it be possible to bank on an early-season high-altitude outlier performance as a ticket to the biggest championships.
Instead their five best performances over the previous 12 months, weighted on the profile and significance of the event where they were laid down, will be averaged out to form an athlete’s ranking.
With IAAF qualification as the lure, it is designed to produce consistently more competitive match-ups throughout the sport.
Where have the rankings come from?
They may be new to the IAAF, but the basis of the rankings has been around for decades.
The IAAF have bought up and brought in house a system used to create the previously independent and incredibly detailed All-Athletics rankings.
Essentially a family-run business inherited from his father by Hungarian Atilla Spiriev, the All-Athletics website took more than 9500 events into consideration in 2017 to decide the best of the best.
Such was the respect that they commanded in the sport that some athletes reportedly had their sponsorship deals tied to their All-Athletics ranking.
The IAAF even published the rankings themselves between 2000 and 2006, using them as a talking point for fans before the project fell out of favour with the organisation’s hierarchy.
After tweaking and fine-tuning the All-Athletics model to their own taste, the IAAF will soft-launch the rankings’ latest incarnation, before they come into full effect in September.
That will allow a full 12 months for the rankings to form the basis of qualification for next year’s World Championships in Doha.
World rankings v world records
Could the rankings do something perhaps more significant, though? Could it change the conversation around the sport – switching from historical benchmarks to present-day rivalries?
In May last year, European Athletics – the continental governing body – proposed a ‘year zero’ for world records, wiping out those set before 2005.
Svein Arne Hansen, the European Athletics president, explained that the cut-off date would help restore credibility to the sport as world records “are meaningless if people don’t really believe them”.
A ranking system fans buy into could shift the narrative away from troublesome other-worldy records to extraordinary on-track clashes.
The longest-standing world record on the books was set in Munich in July 1983 – nearly 35 years ago – when the Czech Republic and Slovakia where still one and 32-year-old national Jarmila Kratochvilova ran an eye-popping one minute 53.28 for the 800m.
For a measure, South Africa’s all-conquering Caster Semenya was nearly two seconds off that pace as she claimed gold in the event at London 2017.
Kratochvilova has denied that her extraordinary performance was assisted by the systematic doping regime that existed in her country at the time.
Paula Radcliffe’s 2003 marathon record would also fall foul of a 2005 cut-off designed to coincide with the introduction of storage of blood and urine samples for retrospective testing.
The Briton attacked the proposal as a “heavy-handed” and “cowardly” way to deal with some “really suspicious” records and the proposal seems to have been quietly ushered into the long grass.
How close have modern athletes got?
For athletics chiefs the problem remains though that some world records seem so far out of reach for today’s generation as to be all but irrelevant.
The graphic above shows how close another athlete has got to the current world-record holder over the last five years.
On the track, East German athlete Marita Koch’s 33-year-old 400m mark of 47.60 – also open to suspicion – is streets ahead of the 49.26 s run by American Allyson Felix in winning her world title in 2013.
While modern great Valerie Adams is almost two metres short of what Soviet shot-putter Natalya Lisovskaya achieved in 1987.
Beyond individual injustices, there are other reasons to be cautious about the ‘year zero’ proposal.
Not every seemingly indelible record has remained untouched in today’s era of more stringent doping controls for instance.
Most noticeably, Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana dropped jaws around the Olympic Stadium in Rio when she shattered the 10,000m world record set by China’s Wang Junxia in 1993 by a mammoth 14 seconds.
And seismic step-changes in what is possible are some of the sport’s most cherished moments.
Bob Beamon’s landmark long-jump leap of 8.90m at the 1968 Olympics was beyond the limit of the measuring equipment of the day.
“That’s not a time, it sounds like my dad’s birthday,” said rival Ato Bolden in disbelief after Michael Johnson’s 19.32-run took more than a third of a second off the 200m world record in 1996.
Jonathan Edwards, whose triple jump world record would be wiped by a pre-2005 purge, has also urged caution in presuming that improbable field world records are the product of cheating.
For him, the delicate alchemy behind his 1995 leap of 18.29 proved impossible to replicate despite apparently superior ingredients.
“I was actually faster and stronger after I set that world record in Gothenburg, “he told BBC Sport in July.
“But for whatever reason, I could not translate that into more distance. It is difficult to predict how technique and physique combine, perhaps more than in track events.”
The fear remains though that, short of a whitewash, athletics may never be rid of some marks that are more like suspicious stains on its history.
Botswana’s Isaac Makwala, who won the 400m at the inaugural Liquid Telecom Athletix Grand Prix Series Meeting in Roodepoort, Johannesburg on Thursday, 01 March, has his sights set on breaking the 31 second barrier at the University of Pretoria’s Tuks Stadium in Tshwane this coming Thursday, 08 March.
The 300m is not an often run event and as such, only three athletes have broken through the 31sec mark. These three are illustrious names indeed. Wayde van Niekerk holds the world best of 30.81sec (Ostrava, 28 June 2017), having broken the previous record set by Michael Johnson of 30.85sec (Tshwane, 24 March 2000) and Usain Bolt (30.97sec – Ostrava, 27 May 2010).
Makwala will only be the 4th athlete to go under 31sec should he accomplish the feat on Thursday, 08 March.
Clearly in a confident mood, Makwala said that if the race was in June he would be looking at the world record. But it is March, so a sub 31sec is a more realistic target. After running national records for both the 200m (19.77Ssec – 14 July) and 300m (31.44sec – Ostrava, 10 June) last year, the 31-year-old has clearly grown in confidence.
Makwala also holds the 400m national record for Botswana, 43.72sec run at La Chaux-de-Fonds in 2015.
“I did not go flat out in the 400m on Thursday (1 March) because I still had the 200m a bit later in the evening. But there is only the 300m for me this Thursday (8 March), so I feel very confident about getting close to that sub 31sec,” said Makwala.
He will line up against among others, Pieter Conradie, who was third in Ruimsig (45.77sec) and young Thapelo Phora who ran a Personal Best of 45.39sec to finish second behind Makwala in Ruimsig. Also in the field is the dangerous Ofentse Mogawane who is renowned for his aggressive front running tactics.