The crème de la crème of South African athletes is among a 31-member squad that will feature in the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in Beijing from August 22 to 30.
Team South Africa features five world championship medallists: Caster Semenya (gold in 2009 and silver in 2011 – 800m), Khotso Mokoena (silver in 2009 – long jump), Sunette Viljoen (bronze in 2001 – javelin), LJ van Zyl (silver in the 4x400m relay and bronze in the 400m hurdles, both in 2011) and the sole South African medallist in 2013, Johan Cronje (bronze – 1 500m).
The squad also includes several national record holders, generating hope of more medals this time around, with much attention being focused on the sprinters.
In fact, the IAAF itself tweeted this week, in its pre-world championships coverage: “18 years since an African finished top three over 400m at a WCH. Can @WaydeDreamer bring home a medal from #Beijing2015?” accompanied by a photo of local sprint sensation Wayde van Niekerk.
In July, Van Niekerk became the first African to break the 44-second barrier in the 400m at an IAAF Diamond League meeting in Paris, where he also beat Olympic champion Kirani James. He trails James by two points on the Diamond League 400m leaderboard, and is a definite contender for the world championship title.
Select group of sprinters
Joint South African 100m record holders Akani Simbine and Henrico Bruintjies have also fascinated local athletics enthusiasts with their achievements on the track this season. On July 1, Simbine joined a select group of sprinters when he broke the 10-second barrier at an event in Slovenia, winning it in a time of 9.99 seconds. Less than a week later, Bruintjies bettered this, winning his heat at the Resisprint International meeting in Switzerland in just 9.97 seconds, breaking Simon Magakwe’s national record of 9.98 seconds. Simbine came back four days later, equalling the new record at the World Student Games in South Korea.
But in Beijing, the focus of the 100m will be on Jamaican Usain Bolt and his rivalry with Justin Gatlin, who boasts the best time of the year. Bolt is a firm favourite with the crowds, but Simbine doesn’t find the prospect of competing against him daunting.
“I’ve only raced against him once and that was in the relay at the Commonwealth Games, so I can’t really say I’ve raced him one on one,” he told the Mail & Guardian. “But from that experience in the relay it was cool, because he just brings a different atmosphere to the stadium, which I draw from. It’s more of a benefit than a disadvantage.”
Simbine will compete in both the 100m and 200m events. “I’m excited, but more relaxed and feeling positive for the championships,” he said. He doesn’t feel under any pressure to perform because of his other achievements this season, he added. “It doesn’t put any different pressure than having to race [in] a normal competition. It’s all just a bigger stage but the mind-set stays the same.”
Simbine agreed that these are exhilarating times for South African athletes. “We are all coming up together and putting out performances that are internationally recognised, so for us being the first doing that is very exciting,” he said.
The South African squad is made up of 25 men and six women, including Justine Palframan, who has enjoyed her most successful athletics season to date, winning the 200m and 400m double titles at the South African under-23, senior and student championships, as well as the 400m at the World Student Games in South Korea, where she ran a personal best of 51.27 seconds.
Because of the structure of the world championships programme, Palframan, who is just 21, will only compete in her preferred event, the 400m. “I am very excited to be here and to be representing my country,” she told the M&G from Beijing. “It is a real honour and a dream come true.”
Palframan said she is looking forward to competing against the world’s best. “I believe that the competition will bring the best out of me. I always dreamed of running at this level and I’m just happy that I’m here. And I know I will make the best out of the situation.”
Palframan’s goal for Beijing is to clock a new personal best time and get through the preliminary rounds.
“If I get the time I want, and give it my all, there’s no more I could have given,” she said. “The IAAF World Championships is one of the biggest athletics meetings you can compete in. I have always dreamed of this opportunity. There are athletes that are highly spoken of but still don’t manage to make it to the finals at these competitions. It is very good exposure to the pressures, as there will obviously be huge crowds.”
South African squad
Henrico Bruintjies (100m)
Akani Simbine (100m/200m)
Anaso Jobodwana (100m/200m)
Wayde van Niekerk (400m)
Berend Koekemoer (400m)
Rynhardt van Rensburg (800m)
Johan Cronje (1 500m)
Stephen Mokoka (10 000m)
Antonio Alkana (110m hurdles)
LJ van Zyl (400m hurdles)
Cornel Fredericks (400m hurdles)
Zarck Visser (long jump)
Rushwahl Samaai (long jump)
Khotso Mokoena (long jump/triple jump)
Orazio Cremona (shot put)
Jaco Engelbrecht (shot put)
Victor Hogan (discus throw)
Rocco van Rooyen (javelin throw)
Willem Coertzen (decathlon)
Lebogang Shange (20km walk)
Marc Mundell (50km walk)
Benedict Moeng (marathon)
Desmond Mokgobu (marathon)
Lucas Jani (marathon)
Sibusiso Nzima (marathon)
Carina Horn (100m)
Justine Palframan (400m)
Caster Semenya (800m)
Wenda Nel (400m hurdles)
Sunette Viljoen (javelin throw)
Tanith Maxwell (marathon)