South African Olympic champion Wayde van Niekerk gets confidence boost ahead of 2022 World Athletics Championships

Men's 400m world record holder is on the comeback trail and dipped well below 45 seconds in his first one-lap race of the season.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Olympic champion Wayde van Niekerk claimed a commanding victory in his first men's 400m race of the 2022 track season at the Stars and Stripes Classic meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday (2 July).

South African Van Niekerk looked comfortable leading the race from gun to tape, clocking 44.58 seconds to give himself a much-needed confidence boost ahead of the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon, in less than two weeks.

The two-time world champion came out of the final bend well in front, with the rest of the field following in a v-formation, before crossing the line nearly a second ahead of nearest rival Rusheen McDonald (45.43s) of Jamaica. Demish Gaye, another Jamaican, raced home in a time of 45.47s.

"The plan was to try and execute my race as comfortably as possible coming off of consecutive niggles and injuries," Van Niekerk told the World-Track website.

"I tried to keep it as smooth as possible for as long as I could, but as you know, as you get to the home straight, you have to pick it up a bit and finish strong, so it gave me a reason to fight to the finish line, and I am quite satisfied with the results."

The time ranks him just outside the top 10 in the world this year, with American ace Michael Norman leading with the 43.56s he clocked at the 2022 USATF Outdoor Championships at the end of June.

Van Niekerk's comeback from a severe knee injury has been fraught with setbacks, including an early exit at the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021. His lousy run of misfortune spilt into 2022 when he withdrew from the ASA Senior Track and Field Championships in Cape Town in April as a precaution before pulling up in a 200m race in Italy in May.

"I'm disappointed. I was excited to compete, but unfortunately, things have not been going my way over the last few weeks," Van Niekerk said in a statement before the South African championships.

"My spirits are still high, and I will keep putting in the hard work. For now, I'm looking forward to getting back to work."

Van Niekerk was named in South Africa's team for the world championships starting on 15 July courtesy of a 44.87s he ran in Switzerland in June 2021. But the South African has raced sparingly since his comeback in 2020 from a three-year hiatus.

Wayde van Niekerk is set to return to the world championships for the first time since 2017.

The lack of race time – with only a single competitive event to his name this year – may again be a factor at a major competition like the world championships, where he would have to go through the rounds for a shot at redemption.

That proved detrimental to his Olympic title defence as he reached Tokyo with only two races under his belt, including a season-opening 44.56s run in Madrid on 19 June.

Van Niekerk's build-up to Tokyo 2020 was bedevilled by injury setbacks, with the South African runner reaching the global showpiece undercooked for his title defence.

The 29-year-old failed to reach the final of the 400m at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 following elimination in the semi-finals where he finished fifth in a time of 45.14s. The bitter disappointment of Tokyo was far removed from the delight of Rio 2016, where his winning time of 43.03s wiped out the world record the great American Michael Johnson held since 1999, earning him a place in Olympic history.

Van Niekerk, who will turn 30 on the first day of the 2022 world championships, will be looking to put the disappointments of the past five years behind him as he eyes his first final berth since the 2017 London World Champs. He won back-to-back 400m titles at those championships, where he also won the 200m silver medal before tearing his anterior cruciate knee ligament in a celebrity touch rugby match in October 2017.

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