YOG athlete Sibanda makes his mark in red-hot final

In Sunday’s men’s 400m final at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, most eyes were drawn to sensational winner Wayde Van Niekerk, from South Africa, who stunned the Olympic Stadium with a world record-breaking run. But following him home in fifth was Botswana’s Karabo Sibanda – a silver medallist in the same event at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Nanjing 2014 – who proved in running a fine personal best that he can thrive on the biggest stage of all.

Picture by Getty Images

Reaching the Olympic Games was an achievement in itself for Sibanda, who missed two vital months of his Olympic preparations with a hamstring injury, but showed signs of a return to form in July when claiming a bronze medal at the 2016 IAAF World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz (Poland).

Getty Images

Fast forward a month, and the 18-year-old was getting ready to star on the same athletics billing as his childhood hero Usain Bolt. After progressing through his heat, Sibanda showed marked improvement in a star-studded semi-final on Saturday, running an outstanding personal best of 44.47 behind Olympic champions Kirani James (GRN) and LaShawn Merritt (USA) to qualify for the final.

And in the main event, the youngest man in the line-up proved he belonged with the world’s best. As Van Niekerk set blistering fractions in lane eight, Sibanda ran a controlled race in lane one and finished strongly to cross the line in 44.25, shaving more than two tenths of a second off the time he posted a day earlier.

“I would give my performance 100 per cent”, said the Botswanan afterwards, clearly delighted with his efforts. “44.25 is awesome. It was a very fast race!”

The fastest-ever 400m race, in fact – Van Niekerk shattered American legend Michael Johnson’s 17-year world record – and being part of such an historic occasion represented valuable experience for a young athlete, as Sibanda reflected.

“I’ve learned so much competing against the likes of Van Niekerk, James and Merritt – it was a very good experience,” he said.

The Olympic Games are not over for Sibanda either, and he will now turn his attentions to the men’s 4x400m relay, the heats of which take place on Friday. Sadly, the team will be without Sibanda’s YOG team-mate Baboloki Thebe, who also won a silver medal (in the 200m) in Nanjing, but aggravated an injury in Rio and couldn’t take his place in the 400m semi-finals after qualifying from the heats.

Nonetheless, Sibanda’s form will give his Botswana team the belief that they can make the podium, and a medal in the relay would cap a remarkable graduation from the YOG to the Olympic stage for Sibanda. Whatever happens, he will be a leading contender at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 if he can sustain his rapid rate of improvement.