Johannesburg - The South African athletics fraternity may be transfixed in anticipation on the potential 200m showdown between the sub-20 second trio of Wayde van Niekerk, Anaso Jobodwana and Akani Simbine – but a pair of teenagers may well be in line to gatecrash the party.
Clarence Munyai (19) and Gift Leotlela (18) are hardly newcomers to the world of South African sprinting – they already represented the country at the Rio Olympics in the 200m last year.
But even though they are still juniors, the strides they have made demand that the public takes notice.
Perhaps as a teaser to that, the seniors aren’t going to have things all their way, as the two have already laid down markers that they won’t be bystanders when the sprint fireworks go off over the course of the season.
Happen in his favour
Leotlela already has a famous scalp in Van Niekerk, having beaten him in the 100m in the Bloemfontein leg of the Speed Series, while Munyai’s recent 20.10 second second-place finish behind Simbine in the latter’s 19.95 second run broke Riaan Dempers’ South African junior record (20.16 seconds) from 1995.
Munyai’s feat was such that talk ahead of the Speed Series in Potchefstroom a few days ago was that he was gunning to become only the second teenager in the history of athletics – the other being Usain Bolt – to attempt to run a sub-20 second 200m.
But Hennie Kriel, the pair’s coach, is at pains to nip such talk in the bud.
“It wasn’t so much him than it was the media talking about it. Definitely, it’s something we’re aiming at because he’s come so close. But to do that, everything has to happen in his favour,” Kriel said.
“Remember, only Bolt has done it before, so it’s not going to be an obsession for us.”
Kriel knows the two well, having started coaching them in 2014 (Munyai) and 2015 (Leotlela) when they joined TuksSport High School, where he is the head sprint coach.
“Clarence tends to favour the 200m; Gift alternates between the two,” said Kriel.
“But Clarence did do a 10.20 second 100m last year, which is the same personal best as Gift’s. Clarence is the more temperamental of the two, which makes him suitable to the 200m because there’s less margin for error in the 100m. Gift is the more mellow of the two.”
While they may return similar times, they couldn’t be more different in their running styles.
“Clarence is definitely not a classic sprinter. He hasn’t got the classic sprinting technique...he just has a frequency,” said Kriel.
“The key to sprinting is applying downwards force on the track, so if you were to stand and have Clarence run behind you, you’d hear him – he strikes the track. He’s got locked hips, which is why it always seems like he’s falling – we’re working on his technique to get him more upright.
“Gift is more classical, technically. He’s got a superb running technique, especially the leg action.”
When it comes to his charges’ potential, Kriel hesitates to make grand pronouncements because they are so young. But with Leotlela having won silver in the World Junior Champs 200m last year, and Munyai now the fifth-fastest teenager in history in the 200m, it’s difficult not to enthuse about their career prospects.
No specific goals
“If he stays healthy and motivated, Clarence can go all the way. By that, I mean he can run a 19.5 in the 200m, he can go to the top of the world – he’s very fast. Gift has run three 10.20 seconds in the 100m, which is close to Simbine’s 10.19 junior record. So he’s in that class, he should go sub-10 anytime.
“The good thing is that, from going to the Olympics last year, they realise that there’s a lot of work ahead of them. They went from being juniors who beat everyone to suddenly not making it past the heats.”
For that reason, Kriel said there were no specific goals for this season, other than just helping them be consistent in their results and “establishing them as world-class sprinters. But I’m very happy with their progression.”