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Athletics | SA Track & Field

Wayde van Niekerk © Gallo Images

2016 SA Athletics Review

Wayde van Niekerk. Lane eight. 43.03. World record.

South Africans around the country either stayed up for or woke up to the amazing news of the young sprinters feat at the Rio Olympic Games earlier this year – and while it was the standout moment of the year for South African athletics, it wasn’t the only one.

Van Niekerk headed into the Olympics already with a big victory over the reigning Olympic champion as well as former gold medallist under his belt and he was a hot favourite for the title. That it was a such a crushing victory in Rio was a big surprise – nobody expected a world record. But Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old was well and truly smashed and Van Niekerk made history again as he did it from lane eight.

“As I got to the finish line I was expecting one of them to catch me and as I crossed the finish line I looked left and I saw – but there’s no-one,” Van Niekerk told reporters after his stunning victory. “I’m still a bit amazed.

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A few days later it was the turn of Caster Semenya as she claimed Olympic gold in the women’s 800m final.

No athlete headed to the Games as assured of the gold medal as Semenya was after an absolutely dominant season in the event.

Just a few months earlier – Semenya made history as she completed a 400m-800m-1 500m triple all in the same day at the SA Senior Championships in Stellenbosch. That was followed by a sweep of the Diamond League events before claiming ultimate prize in Rio.

Semenya had come full circle after years of controversy.

"I was not really under pressure but obviously I had to do it for my people. They were expecting more out of me. They know what I can do so they knew I could produce such a performance,” she said after the race.

"I think this is the highlight of my life. It’s fantastic. I feel proud to be South African."

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But Team South Africa produced more medals in track and field as Luvo Manyonga and Sunette Viljoen added silver in the men’s long jump and women’s javelin respectively.

Manyonga’s medal was a special moment for the jumper, who overcame addiction to crystal meth (tik) and an 18-month drug ban to qualify for the Olympics and medal in the event. Manyonga was, in fact, pipped to the gold by one centimetre but the youngster from Cape Town couldn’t have been happier with his silver medal – especially as he looked back at the horror he lived through as he battled his addiction.

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“I rose from my demons. They’ve been trying all these years to pull me down but now I made it. I can’t even describe it,” he said after his feat.

His coach Neil Cornelius couldn’t have been prouder: “Being here from where we were, where he came from and the amount of work he put in – just being in the medal position was unbelievable. I’m struggling to describe how I felt.

“It’s almost like a Cinderella story – you grow up poor, you grow up with less of a life and all of a sudden everything just happens. It’s very difficult to actually explain how it is – he went from nothing to full of silver.”

Manyonga went on to record a personal best of 8.48m at a Diamond League meet in Brussels in September, coming close to Khotso Mokoena’s SA’s record of 8.50m which is certainly in jeopardy fof being broken next season.

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But while the Olympic medals tell a great story about South Africa’s year in athletics, it’s doesn’t even cover half of it.

“Track is Back” was the mantra in South African circles in 2016 after a crop of young sprinters emerged from the varsity system. We saw three sprinters break the 10-second barrier in the 100m in Akani Simbine, Henricho Bruintjies and Van Niekerk.

Van Niekerk made more history as he became the first sprinter to break the 10-second barrier in the 100m, the 20-second barrier in the 200m and the 44-second barrier in the 400m.

Simbine, meanwhile, reached the men’s 100m final at the Olympics where he finished fifth.

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That the South African didn’t contest the 4x100m relay remains the biggest shame but hopefully Athletics South Africa have learned a lesson.

In women’s athletics, Semenya and Viljoen led the way but Wenda Nel (400m hurdles), Carina Horn (100m and 200m) and Alyssa Conley (100m and 200m) all made great strides as well.

In the long jump, Ruswahl Samaai, Zarck Visser and Dylan Cotter all have the potential to give Manyonga a go as they vie for the South African record.

This is a golden age for young South African track and field athletes. They have good coaches, better facilities, opportunities to train abroad and a solid season of preparation at home before they head to Europe.

2016 Was a breakout or breakthrough year for many young athletes and as they prepare for the 2017 World Championships in London, we can rightfully raise our expectations.


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