Sprinter Wayde van Niekerk says he will not make himself available for the 4x400m relay at the Rio Olympics unless there is a national squad capable of earning a medal, though he could form part of a strong 4x100m team if South Africa qualifies for the event.
Van Niekerk, who set the national 400m record of 43.48 seconds to win the world title in Beijing last year, has dipped under 45.00 on 10 occasions since the start of the 2015 season.
No other SA athlete, however, has run faster than 45.42 (Berend Koekemoer) over the same period in the one-lap sprint, and Van Niekerk admitted on Wednesday he was concerned about the lack of depth and the effect it would have on a potential relay team’s chances of stepping on the podium.
“For me it’s not about doing too much, it’s all about having that confidence in the team,” the speedster said at the announcement of a new sponsorship deal with telecommunications company T- Systems South Africa.
“We need some good quality athletes out there to lay our mark at the Olympics. I can’t expect another person to rely on me if I’m not fit enough, and I feel it should be the same way towards me.
“Everyone in the team should be fit enough and capable of going out there to get a medal. There’s no use for us to go out there just to fill lanes and say we’ve been at the Olympics.”
Athletics SA insisted this week it would create enough opportunities for the nation to make qualifying bids in relay events, with two months remaining before the deadline.
A maiden attempt was planned by a second-string national men’s 4x400m squad at the Diamond League meeting in Doha last week, but it did not materialise after Thapelo Phora picked up a hamstring injury on the second leg. This came just hours after Van Niekerk clocked an impressive 44.11 at the SA Open Championships in Bloemfontein, climbing to second place behind defending Olympic champion Kirani James (44.08) of Grenada in the 2016 world rankings.
Needing two qualifying times to be eligible for one of eight remaining places in each of the relay contests at the Games, based on aggregate rankings, South Africa was not yet in line to qualify for any team races at the multi-sport spectacle.
The national federation had scheduled qualifying attempts in the men’s and women’s 4x100m and 4x400m events at the Night Series meeting in Polokwane later this month, which would bring a close to the domestic season, but no other efforts had been made for SA quartets to compete again in order to achieve aggregate rankings.
Should they book a spot at the Games, however, Van Niekerk said he was eager to compete in the 4x100m relay.
The versatile sprinter set a 100m personal best of 9.98 in Bloemfontein in March, becoming the third SA athlete (behind Akani Simbine and Henricho Bruintjies) to dip under 10 seconds in the last two seasons.
Anaso Jobodwana had also stuck up his hand after clocking a national record of 19.87 for the 200m bronze medal at last year’s global championships.
No training camps were scheduled for athletes to practice changeovers, a crucial aspect of relay running which was highlighted when the promising SA team crashed out in the heats at the Beijing 2015 showpiece after Bruintjies and Jobodwana fluffed the first baton pass.
Though this threatened to hamper the country’s chances in the short-sprint relay, with ASA allegedly making no attempt to communicate with sprinters about their preparation, Van Niekerk felt the individual athletes offered enough depth to give them a chance in the Rio final.
“Look at the 4x100m at the moment. There are top-class guys and I doubt anyone would say no to doing a relay with them because you can see there are great performances,” he said.
“Each and every one of them can run a sub-10, and that’s what we need when we go to the Olympics. You can’t expect a guy who is running 11 (seconds) to feel comfortable in the relay, so that’s what it’s all about.
“It’s all about the performances and having the confidence in your teammates.”