A trio of quarter-milers, including Bahamian Steven Gardiner, has risen to the forefront over the past year to seriously challenge for any global title, and with world record holder Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa being sidelined with a significant injury, the field was wide open.
Gardiner took advantage of Van Niekerk’s absence and won the world title in Doha, Qatar, last year, setting a new Bahamian national record and going down in the history books as the sixth-fastest of all-time. He recorded a stunning time of 43.48 seconds. Still, he wasn’t the world leader. American Michael Norman ran 43.45 seconds at the Mt. SAC Relays, in Torrance, California, last year, and is tied as the fourth-fastest of all-time with fellow American Jeremy Wariner. However, he faltered in the semifinals of last year’s Doha World Championships and Gardiner rose to fame.
American Fred Kerley was the only other athlete to run sub-44 last year, turning in a time of 43.64 seconds at the USA National Championships at Drake Stadium, in Des Moines, Iowa, listing him as the eighth-fastest of all-time.
The man they are all chasing up the all-time list is gradually making a return to the sport. Reference is to world record holder Van Niekerk.
After more than two years on the sidelines, Van Niekerk is back on the track, running all three sprints this season prior to the stoppage of sports due to the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic. He unofficially clocked 10.20 seconds on grass in the 100 meters (m) in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in mid-February. It was his first race since suffering a devastating knee injury in a charity rugby match at the end of the 2017 season.
Later that week, again in Bloemfontein, Van Niekerk ran the 100-200m double, this time on a synthetic track. He clocked 10.10 seconds in the 100m and 20.31 seconds in the 200m in the space of an hour, telling World Athletics (WA) afterwards that it showed him that he still has the speed and the strength that he had before the injury.
A week later, Van Niekerk ran his first 400m race since the 2017 London World Championships, when he won his second consecutive world title, clocking 43.98 seconds. In Bloemfontein at the end of February, he ran a modest 47.42 seconds but wasn’t pushed in the race.
The Olympic and two-time World Champion is on the comeback trail, and if he gets close to the form he showed in breaking Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, he will definitely be a force to reckon with at next year’s Olympics. The Olympics, which were initially set for this summer, has shifted to July 23 to August 8, 2021, still in Tokyo, Japan, due to the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 27-year-old South African was initially set to make a comeback at the Doha World Championships last year, but complications from the knee injury ruled him out of the competition. He told WA that he feels confident that he has the speed and strength to produce world-class times and challenge his world record. One of his goals remains to be the first man to run a 42-point 400m race, pushing his body to the limit.
To date, Van Niekerk is the only man in history to run under 10 seconds in the 100m (9.94), under 20 seconds in the 200m (19.84) and under 44 seconds in the 400m (43.03). He is mentioned in many sporting circles, particularly athletics, as the heir apparent to Jamaican triple world record holder Usain Bolt, regarded widely as the greatest sprinter in world history.
Bolt retired after the 2017 season, and Van Niekerk was looked at by many as the man to replace him as the face of athletics worldwide.
As for next year’s Olympics, for Van Niekerk, it wouldn’t be an easy task getting back to the top and successfully defending his Olympic title. He is expected to be seriously challenged by Gardiner, Norman, Kerley and maybe others as well. Gardiner finished second to Van Niekerk at the 2015 Beijing World Championships, and at just 24, is about three years younger. Kerley is 25 and Norman is the baby of the group at 22.
Van Niekerk said he has massive respect for his new-found rivals and doesn’t take their challenge lightly.
The tall and gifted Bahamian, who trains out of Clermont, Florida, can prove his worth and that last year’s win wasn’t a fluke when he meets Van Niekerk, Norman and Kerley in competition. Whether or not it happens this season remains to be seen, but the men’s 400m is shaping up to be one of the more anticipated events of the 2021 Olympics, should all stay healthy.