LJ van Zyl does not bat an eyelid when I quiz him about his first Olympic memory.
“I remember watching Kevin Young set the world record in the 400m hurdles in Barcelona in 1992,” he said. “That was my first motivation to run the 400m hurdles, because at that stage I was running the 100m and 200m sprints.”
Van Zyl went on to win the national schools sprint titles, but his heart was already lost to hurdling, and 20 years later he is looking to do in London what Young did that memorable day in Spain.
The American blew the field away, becoming the first man to dip under 47 seconds, with a new world record of 46.78. It is a record that still stands today, but Van Zyl will settle for the gold medal – happy just to be in a position to compete for the right to stand on the Olympic podium and sing the national anthem.
“I try not to think about it too much, because then I can’t sleep at night. I just take it day to day, but I really can’t wait – the anthems, the flame, the whole atmosphere in the Olympic village. It’s every athlete’s dream to stand on the podium or to win the gold medal, and it’s no different for me.”
Challenge for a medal
That record of Young’s may be unattainable, but 26-year-old Van Zyl is still going to have to lift his game significantly if he is even to challenge for a medal at this year’s Games in London. His best performance this year is an effort of 49.42 seconds, which is some way off his personal best of 47.66, which he ran twice in 2011 – in Ostrava and in Pretoria. More significantly, though, his 2012 best is a lot slower than the fastest time of the year, run by Puerto Rico’s Javier Culson in 47.92. But Van Zyl is not fazed about being so far off the pace in 44th position, just a few months from the Olympics.
“It’s definitely not competitive, but, after the African champs, I’ll definitely be in the top 10 again. I think the 10th fastest time is a high 48 [48.78], so that’s not too difficult to beat, if you look at my times from all the other years.”
That may be the case, but Van Zyl’s preparations have been hampered by a recent knee injury, which resulted in him withdrawing from last week’s Diamond League meeting in Oslo, and ruled him out of action for 10 days. He has had to restructure his competition planning and training, but remains confident about the African Championships in Benin, which get under way on June 27.
“Maybe this setback is a positive thing, in terms of pressure for the Olympics,” Van Zyl said. “I’m now a full-on underdog and I prefer that. As long as I can get into the final and do my thing, then anything can happen. I can lose every race this year, but if I can win one race and win the Olympics, then the whole year is a success.”
I am curious about these references to “pressure” and “underdog” because, if you look at his record, Van Zyl has yet to marry consistently good times with big performances in major international events.
He ran the four fastest times in the world last year, but had to settle for the bronze medal at the World Championships in Daegu, behind Great Britain’s Dai Greene and Puerto Rico’s Culson.
He was also eliminated in the semifinals of the previous World Championships in Berlin in 2009, despite having run the fastest time of the year, going into the competition – and he had to settle for fifth place at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, after producing top-three times in the heats and semifinals.
He was also eliminated in the heats of the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, the year after claiming the Commonwealth Games title in Melbourne.
That said, he does have that Commonwealth title on his CV and is a three-time African champion and current South African record holder. So, the pedigree is there. He just has not produced the goods on the biggest of stages.
Van Zyl would not comment on this lack of success in the big events, despite his obvious form and quality.
Running really well
So, moving forward, who does Van Zyl think he needs to beat if he is to get his hands on that Olympic gold medal?
“Culson [he has run the three fastest times this year] is running really well, but anyone in the final can do well and you can’t write off former world champion Bershawn Jackson and two-time Olympic champion Angelo Taylor. Together, those are the three to beat.”
And what about 22-year-old South African team-mate Cornel Fredericks, who has run 48.91 in 2012, the 18th fastest in the world this year? “I don’t know. What about him?”
Van Zyl denies that there is any bad blood between them, but it is clear that he views Fredericks as an opponent, just like any of the other guys lining up next to him.
Is it difficult being team-mates and opponents? “We’ve met a few times and there’s no worries.”
Are you saying you have the chance of beating him? “Hopefully.”
Is he one for the future? “Ja, I don’t know.”
Are you guys not friends? “Of course we are friends. We travel together and we are both South African.”
But he is your opponent? “Yes, he’s my opponent, and also 50 other guys. I just prefer to not talk about my opponents.”
Got it. Either way, Van Zyl will have to get past all of those opponents, Fredericks included, if he is to do what Young did all those years ago and blow away an Olympic field on the biggest of stages.
If he achieves that, all suggestions that he does not have what it takes to produce the goods when it really counts will be something of the past.