Johannesburg - On Friday, Athletics SA (ASA) was still making changes to its original team for this week’s World Championships – a list that swelled from 24 to 29.
The additional numbers were at the behest of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which asked one of the more understaffed competing countries to fill vacant spots “to complete the fields in [these] respective disciplines”, said ASA’s press release explaining how their “lean and mean” team was getting flabbier by the day.
The story of how the London-bound team went from 24 of 38 athletes who met the IAAF qualifying marks; was pruned to 23 when the governing body vetoed one of ASA’s favoured athletes; and then grew to 26 and finally 29 is a neat encapsulation of how administrators at ASA are past masters at cocking up a sure thing.
In a season in which the athletes’ performances – led by – got the sport to elbow for room with soccer, rugby and cricket in the nation’s consciousness, the folks at ASA couldn’t help but fritter away pretty much all that goodwill by selecting a team that almost felt like it was designed to show the athletes who’s boss.
And with that act of inexplicable spite – the IAAF would have paid for all 38 athletes who met its qualifying standards, but the ASA was inconsistent about which of the athletes who didn’t achieve its more stringent marks got selected – the administrators once again nudged the athletes out of the spotlight.
But despite the efforts of a handful of officials who were exposed for not understanding their own sport this week, the world championships will not only go on for the South African athletes, it will also be a good one.
There is much excitement over world 400m world record-holder Van Niekerk’s attempt at also winning the 200m; Manyonga’s goal to go one step up on the rostrum from his Olympic silver in the long jump last year; Semenya’s late entry for the middle distance double (800m and 1 500m); Simbine’s hopes for a first major championship medal in the 100m; and Sunette Viljoen’s perennial struggle to crack the golden nod in the javelin, especially after silver in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro last year.
Away from the usual suspects, Ruswahl Samaai is a dark horse for a medal at the very least in the long jump, while, if rumours of South Africa getting a reprieve and possibly getting a 4x100m relay team due to three teams pulling out are true, there could be a possible medal there, too.
Looking at Van Niekerk, most were worried about how close Botswana’s Isaac Makwala got to him in his last 400m race in Monaco, and this before the world championships this week, in a season in which he has posted personal bests in the 100m (9.94sec), the 200m (19.84sec) the 300m (30.81sec) and the world lead in the 400m (43.62sec).
Former South Africa sprints coach Marc Labuschagne was one of the concerned observers, but it wasn’t because of how close Makwala was to beating Van Niekerk:
“My worry is what he’s done to his legs when you consider he’s still got to go through all the rounds in the 200m and the 400m.
“It’s not the total mileage he’s done [Van Niekerk’s only raced twice in the 200m], it’s the time he ran.
"That was something like the fifth-fastest time in the world, so you worry about his recovery by the time he runs in the world championships.”
Labuschagne then said he was splitting hairs and “trying to find a chink in his armour, but if I were to bet my house on it, I would still bet Wayde”.
Another “concern” was Manyonga, who won but pulled up lame in his last Diamond League jump in Stockholm, the injury being a sore ankle.
But his coach, Neil Cornelius, said that was a thing of the past.
“It’s sorted out, it was sorted out a while ago,” he said.
“We’ve had an excellent week’s preparation in good weather in Durban and there’s no soreness and no discomfort. So, physically and mentally, he’s good to go.
“Before the Olympics, we didn’t compete for a month, but we’ve been able to prepare at 100% intensity here.
"We’ve also had time to fix all the things I was worried about: his landing has really impressed me and his drift to the side is better.”