Every time Akani Simbine bursts out of the blocks and with each rapid stride he takes, he edges closer to his dream of reaching the Olympic 100-metre podium. It is a dream that eluded him by milliseconds five years ago at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
This time might be different. For one, Simbine no longer backs into the blocks as a wide-eyed debutant but a genuine medal contender and is among a few sprinters with a chance of claiming the title left vacant by Jamaican icon Usain Bolt.
Simbine will go into the Games buoyed by his newfound status as the fastest African ever in the 100m after he shaved 0.01s off the previous continental mark held by Nigeria's Olusoji Fasuba. The 27-year-old set a new African record of 9.84 seconds at the Gyulai István Memorial meeting in Hungary on 6 July, launching him into 12th place on the world all-time list. Simbine chopped five hundredths off the previous personal best he clocked on the same track a month before Rio 2016.
Carrying the hopes of a continent
Simbine has his sights firmly set on becoming the first black African athlete to win gold in the blue-ribbon event at the Olympic Games. One would have to go back more than 100 years to the last time an African has won the Olympic 100m title.
South Africa's Reggie Walker is the last sprinter from the continent to win the coveted title at the London 1908 Games. Aged 19 years and 128 days, Walker was the youngest winner of the Olympic 100m and, in the process, became Africa's first medal-winner at the Games.
"At the Games (Tokyo 2020), I just want to do my best and make history for my country and my continent," Simbine said in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020.
"I want to make my family and myself proud. I want to do my best and reach higher levels than I've ever done before."
Main character but not the leading man
Over the past five years, Simbine has been among the main characters on the global stage but has played a supporting role instead of cracking a leading role. Simbine has been among the most consistent sprinters around, making it into every 100m final at a major global championship since his first in Rio 2016. Each time he would miss out on a medal by a few hundredths of a second.
In Rio 2016, he finished in fifth place, just 0.03s behind Canadian bronze medallist Andre de Grasse which was incidentally the same margin at the 2019 Doha World Championships. This time Simbine was just one place away from the podium.
The year after the Rio Games, Simbine again featured in a 100m final with Bolt, which was also the Jamaican world record holder's swansong. Simbine again had to be content with fifth place, with Bolt finishing third place as US sprinter Justin Gatlin claimed the title.
"I've gained a lot of experience over the years. It's been an emotional journey, I'd say, but it's been a great experience where I've learned a lot," Simbine said from his base in Gemona, Italy.
"I've been in situations where I just got pipped at the line. I was in a situation in 2016 where I was just happy being in the final, and I didn't expect myself to come fifth and be so close to the medals. I was in a situation in 2019 where I got run down at the line, and that was supposed to be my time to be on the podium."
Simbine's trajectory since Rio did suggest that the 2019 world championships was his time to shine. He had established himself as a consistent sub-10 seconds athlete while he also made his breakthrough onto the podium at major competitions.
He won both the Commonwealth Games and African 100m titles in 2018 to add to his pedigree as a world-class sprinter. The year before, he joined the so-called 'sub-dub club', becoming the first South African to dip under 10 seconds in the 100m (9.93) and 20 seconds in the 200m (19.95) on the same day.
"I've had quite the journey, I've made it to the finals of the Olympics and the world champs, but now it feels like everything is coming together," Simbine said.
"I'm really prepared to work hard and make sure I am ready to the best I can, to get onto the podium. That is the big goal, to stand on the Olympic podium."
Since breaking through the magical barrier in 2015, Simbine has posted 29 legal sub-10 seconds times. He has been among the world's top-10 fastest men in the short sprint every year since his breakthrough in 2016.
I believe I have that gear in me, it's not about finding the gear.
It is within me. I know I can bring it out, and I just need the races to bring it out.
But running under 10 seconds is no longer seen as a gauge, especially when the top contenders are running faster than 9.8 seconds. The U.S. sprinters have been leading the charge over the last five years, with the likes of Gatlin, Trayvon Bromell, and Christian Coleman posting fast times.
Bromell threw down the gauntlet earlier in 2021 when he blasted to a world lead of 9.77, which rocketed him into seventh place on the world 100m all-time list. A new line was drawn ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Games, and it again highlighted that a sub-10 might not be good enough for a shot at the title.
Simbine admitted he had to find the next gear if he wanted to be taken seriously going into this year's global showpiece.
"I believe I have that gear in me, it's not about finding the gear. It is within me," Simbine said.
"I know I can bring it out, and I just need the races to bring it out. I already ran a 9.8, although it was wind-aided, it is in my legs. I believe I can do it again, and I can compete against the Americans that have run 9.8. It's one of those things I am confident about, and I know I can do it when it matters."
Three days after this prediction, Simbine shattered his previous national record in Hungary, highlighting his pedigree as a world-class sprinter registering the second-fastest 100m time this year.
The soft-spoken Simbine had come a long way since he first burst onto the South African scene when he raced to a national junior record of 10.19 in 2012.
Growing up, Simbine was beaten by other kids in foot races in junior school but eventually discovered his speed playing football.
"I used to play soccer, and that was my dream, I wanted to be a soccer player," Simbine recalled.
"I was always the kid where they would kick the ball, and Akani must run after it, and no-one is going to catch him. That's how I played, and I scored a lot of goals by doing that, and I helped my team win that way."
His shift to track and field has paid rich dividends with Simbine and world 400m record holder Wayde van Niekerk's leading South Africa's sprint revolution.
The most challenging thing I've had to overcome was my mind and not believing I can be the best, not believing that I deserve to be where I am.
Simbine has also been instrumental in the country's recent relay successes anchoring South Africa to the silver in the 4x200m, and gold in the 4x100m at the 2019 and 2021 World Relays.
The swagger Simbine now flaunts when he steps onto the track was not always a feature as he had to overcome serious self-doubt early in his career.
"The most challenging thing I've had to overcome was my mind and not believing I can be the best, not believing that I deserve to be where I am," Simbine said.
"I struggled with self-belief a lot, and now I believe in myself, my talent and everything that is in me that can make me the best version of myself. I don't suffer from that anymore, and I am thankful for the journey of believing that you can do so many great things."