Wayde van Niekerk back on Tokyo trail with first win for 30 months

The South African sprinter won gold and set a 400m world record at Rio 2016, but has not run competitively since the 2017 World Championships

4 min By Ken Browne

Wayde Van Niekerk is back on track.

South Africa's Olympic 400m athletics champion won his first race for 18 months in Bloemfontein on Monday (17 February), although it was far from a competitive outing.

The 27-year-old crossed the line first in a 100m race on a grass track with a hand-timed 10.20s.

The victory may only have been in an unofficial university meet, but finishing a race without complications is a boost as he bids to return to form ahead of the defence of his Olympic crown at Tokyo 2020.

"It is good to be back running and I am satisfied with my time. Thanks again to everyone who has assisted in my recovery." - Wayde van Niekerk

From celebration to rehabilitation

In 2016, van Niekerk was on top of the world.

He blazed home in the Rio 400m final from the outside lane and consigned Michael Johnson’s previous world record to history, setting a new mark of 43.03s.

The following year was going pretty well too, retaining his 400m world title in London in August before just failing to double up in the 200m with silver behind Turkey's Ramil Guliyev.

But his career was derailed in October as he tore his anterior cruciate knee ligament (ACL) in a charity touch rugby match in Cape Town.

He sat out the whole of the 2018 season before targeting a hat-trick of 400m titles at the Doha World Championships.

The 27-year-old then suffered a knee bone bruise last July and is yet to make his full return.

Hard road to recovery

Van Niekerk underwent surgery on his ACL in November 2017 in Colorado shortly after getting married to Chesney Campbell.

Then followed months of intense rehabilitation in the United States and Qatar, and back home with his coach Anna "Tannie Ans" Botha in South Africa.

But the setbacks took a physical and mental toll, and he opted to skip the whole season.

"First two months post surgery I regretted every moment wishing I could turn back time or just redo the decisions that brought me to where I am now. But this was my reality and I just had to accept my situation and find a reason to smile again." - Wayde van Niekerk

It has been a long road back for the popular sprinter, and he's delighted to be back on the track.

Could van Niekerk win gold again at Tokyo 2020?

That's the question everyone wants to know the answer to, but there are plenty of obstacles in van Niekerk's path.

In his absence at the Doha Worlds, Steven Gardiner brought joy to the Bahamas by winning gold with Colombia's rising star Anthony Jose Zambrano taking silver ahead of USA's Fred Kerley.

Hot favourite Michael Norman made a surprising exit in the semi-finals, but expect him to be back and raring to go for Tokyo.

At the Laureus Awards in Berlin in February, Michael Johnson said it would be "very difficult" for van Niekerk to retain his crown.

Four-time Olympic champion Johnson said, "An athlete who misses two seasons through an injury usually takes one season to get back into shape. Therefore, expectations around Wayde should not be too high as it will be a huge challenge for him to be at his best in Japan.

"It is mentally tough to stage a comeback in an Olympic year, especially when many of your rivals for medals are clocking really fast times. That is not to say, however, that Wayde has no chance of emulating his feat of four years ago and winning another 400m gold medal.

"He is a special athlete who may not follow the normal patterns of recovery. I guess we will just have to wait and see how he performs." - Michael Johnson on Wayde van Niekerk

It would certainly be an incredible comeback if the South African could return to his best and make a successful defence of his Olympic title.

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