Team South Africa touched down in the blistering Doha heat earlier this week. Much of the squad, comprising five women and 26 men, arrived unencumbered by expectation.
Few would dare to believe we could come close to the six-medal haul of two years ago, not with the chief protagonists of that story — Wayde van Niekerk and Caster Semenya — missing the plane to Qatar. It all looks a bit bleak, a select few prospects notwithstanding.
Yet, one of them offers a little more than pure medal statistics.
Akani Simbine enters the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Athletics Championships with a legitimate opportunity to force himself to the forefront of a new era of athletics, one that does not feature living legend Usain Bolt in its premier event: the 100m.
Bolt’s absence has left an uncertain void that could conceivably be filled by the fastest South African in history. Simbine’s coach, Werner Prinsloo, is certainly not one to throw cold water on the possibility.
“There’s no guarantees in this sport at all,” he tells the Mail & Guardian. “You show up, you’re on the blocks, and have no choice but to rely on your own ability and the confidence that your season has gone well.
“The confidence is high and the excitement is building. For him, it’s just to stay healthy and in good spirits, so when he lines up he knows he’s got a chance.”
In the couple of days leading up to the first heats on Friday, Simbine has been kept out of the sun as much as possible and was encouraged to consume an endless stream of water. With temperatures peaking at close to 40°C each day, he could ill afford to do anything else.
The Khalifa International Stadium, at least, is purported to have a state-of-the-art air conditioning system and should bring the temperature during the events down to a more manageable range of 23°C to 25°C. Still, in an event with miniscule margins, such as the 100m, any small changes to what the athletes are used to could have a major effect.
Already, the race is set to be a mad scramble as the world’s men fight to travel a 100th of a second faster.
It’s a particularly daunting line-up of likely final contenders, too. Christian Coleman stands as the favourite heading in to it. The American has revelled in producing times in the 9.80-second range this season and inexplicably never seems to run a bad race. Nigeria’s 22-year-old, Divine Oduduru, is close behind him in every respect, but question marks remain about whether he can push at full capacity after a demanding season. Yohan Blake and Justin Gatlin, meanwhile, bring experience that could be telling in a ruthlessly close race.
“In a race, especially a final, anything can happen. Really, anything can happen,” Prinsloo emphasises. “He [Coleman] has been the fastest in the last two years or so. He is the guy to beat, but there are absolutely no guarantees, especially in a World Champs.
“Once you get into the final, it’s just you against seven other guys who want a medal. Whoever can stabilise themselves and dig deep will get to the line first,” he notes.
“The thing is, with Bolt not there, it’s probably one of the most open World Champs in a very long time. There is no one dominant athlete on the circuit. It’s one of the most open races in ages. It’s anybody’s race to win. As I said, whoever steps up on the day is going to take it. That fact makes it very exciting, because you never know. With Bolt, everyone kind of expected him to win … Now, if you were a bookie, you would give everybody the same odds,” says Simbine’s globally respected coach.
Simbine heads into the race with a season best of 9.93 seconds. He has managed to assert himself as a contender in every race he has run in the Diamond League this year and, on most occasions, has been stamped with a “favourite” sticker on his back.
Most recently, he dominated a field at a Diamond League sprint in London that contained former world champion Blake and Britain’s much-hyped sprinter, Zharnel Hughes.
“We didn’t race a lot this year because it’s World Champs year, so we don’t race that much,” Prinsloo says. “We’ve been a bit more selective on the races, just focusing on the Diamond League. Except for Birmingham and Zurich, they were all pretty good. Preparation has gone well: he’s healthy and hasn’t had any problems. Everything up until now has been as planned.”
The prestige Simbine and his rivals will be chasing this weekend cannot be overstated. Bolt brought unprecedented eyeballs to the sprint and established its permanence on the priority list of the athletics calendar.
It’s been more than a decade since Bolt annihilated arguably one of the most competitive line-ups to ever put their toes on the line at the 2009 Championships.
It was there that he would not only expunge any doubts about his supremacy in the sport, but would also demolish a world record he set a year before (9.69 seconds) at the Olympics, with an unthinkable time of 9.58 seconds.
The legacy was already fashioned, but an inquiry into who would challenge bolt has followed at every World Championship after.
And whether it was Americans Gatlin or Tyson Gay setting season best times in the IAAF Golden League or even fellow countryman Asafa Powell and Blake in the years that followed, Bolt would always smother them and make the track feel like a single lane. He did so at the championships in Moscow in 2013 and in Beijing in 2015.
Bolt’s running style was somewhat of an enigma. It wasn’t on par with the rest from the sound of the gunshot, because his size 13 shoes needed some more time to get out of the blocks, but Bolt would somehow glide past his competitors when he got going, even though the first 10m of the race had already been run.
But Bolt’s beautiful, long strides emphasised why he needed only 90m to win a race, none better than the way he ended off every Jamaican 4×100 relay. It was rarely so, but when faced with ground to make up on runners in a relay, Bolt would catapult himself to the finish line.
We’re unlikely to see anything like it in the near future.
Nico van Heerden, another coach from Simbine’s base at the Tuks High Performance Centre, also feels comfortable tipping the athlete to gain a medal in this brave new world.
“Akani is in great condition,” he says. “At the moment I think he’s our best chance. With all respect, I’m not sure who else [from Team South Africa has a chance]. As you know, 100m is tough. That is now the main event at all the big meetings. The guys are running fast. You can’t just go sub-10.
“You just don’t know with the circumstances: it’s going to be very hot, and anything can happen,” he says. Only Luvo Manyonga, van Heerden reckons, has a similar chance of bringing home a medal — and he looks off form.
The more one stares at the odds, the more it seems like folly to expect a return similar to 2017. That’s probably something we should accept and results from circumstances beyond anyone’s control. Yet, it’s still hard not to be a shade optimistic about the growth of athletics in the country — a position made abundantly clear by the possibility of a South African playing a prominent part ushering in a new generation.