Van Niekerk, SA’s lone realistic medal hope

CAPE TOWN born Wayde van Niekerk has emerged as South Africa’s most realistic hope of medalling at the 15th IAAF World Championships in Beijing, China, after his noteworthy 400-metre performance in Monday’s semifinals.

He became only the second South African to reach a final at the 2015 showpiece after 400m hurdler Wenda Nel earlier in the day secured a berth in the medal race with a second place. The finals for these two events will be raced during Wednesday’s afternoon session.

Van Niekerk will, however, have his work cut out to win a medal of any colour since his winning time of 44.31 seconds in the third semi was the slowest of the three winners, and only fourth fastest overall on Monday.

Olympic champion Granada’s Kirani James won the first semifinal in 44.16, and then Botswana’s African record-holder Isaac Makwala, drawn in the outside lane, led the second semifinal all the way round to win the next race in 44.11. The Dominican Republic’s Luguelín Santos, who finished second to James, was the other runner with a better time at 44.26.

Van Niekerk has had his fair share of the limelight this year when he claimed the 400m gong at the New York, Paris and London Diamond League Meetings. Those dazzling feats could underpin his big-match temperament for the final in the frenzied atmosphere in the Bird’s Nest stadium on Wednesday evening.

Before Van Niekerk makes his way to the starting line, the eyes of all Mzansi will be fixed on Wenda Nel when she lines up in the 400m hurdles final midway through the evening session.

The Tuks/HPC athlete produced a performance full of guts and determination as she nailed down her place in the final in a time of 54.63 in the first semi behind America’s Cassandra Tate who stopped the watches in 54.33. Initially she made all the running over the first half of the race but at the end she was locked in a gripping battle with Britain’s Eilidh Child to snatch the runner-up slot which guaranteed a place in the final.

In an IAAF interview after the race, an elated Nel said that it has been her goal all along to qualify for the final.

“I knew it was never going to be easy, but all the hard work of the past few years have at long last paid off,” said Nel. – ANA