Olympic champion Wayde van Niekerk won’t be defending his 400m title in the final of this year’s Tokyo Games. The world record holder could only scrap to a fifth-place finish in the third semifinal on Monday, not good enough to earn a place on Thursday’s starting blocks.
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.
Still, hope naturally gravitated towards Van Niekerk, a talisman of the South African athletics squad. During his heat on Sunday, the signs were there that he might just be able to turn it when it counts and recapture his historic form, cantering to a 45.25 time in the automatic qualifying slots.
But it was not to be in Monday’s semifinal. Starting in lane eight among a tough line-up, Van Niekerk surged past his Dutch opponent to his right but struggled to fend off the other frontrunners. By the time the athletes coalesced at the final bend he looked to be visibly fading and was outrun in the final stretch.
Ultimately, he could only muster a 45.14 – not good enough to challenge the ubiquitous sub-45 of the rest of the finalists. For context his record is 43.03, which had smashed Michael Johnson’s 17-year peak.
The elimination brings fresh pain to a South African team that was 0.04 seconds away from winning a medal in the Olympics’ marquee event. Akani Simbine lined up as arguably one of the favourites in an absurdly open 100m race on Sunday, but was pipped to the line by three men who incredibly all ran the fastest race of their lives. His 9.93 effort is certainly nothing to be smirked at, yet as the cliche goes: there is no position worse than fourth.
Of more concern is the injury to Gift Leotlela. South Africa’s second-fastest man crashed to the floor after pulling up with what looked like a hamstring injury in Sunday’s 100m semifinal, sidelining him for the rest of the Games. His misfortune will be devastating to the exciting 4x100m team that had genuine ambitions to add a medal to their World Athletics Relays title from earlier this year.
For now, the country’s medal watch turns to Clarence Munyai, who will begin the 200m heats on Tuesday. The national record holder will be joined by 20-year-old Shaun Maswanganyi, who also made the 100m semis, and Anaso Jobodwana.