Wayde van Niekerk wins on emotional return in Bellinzona, Akani Simbine also shines

LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 05: Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa competes in the Men’s 400 metres during day two of the 16th IAAF World Athletics Championships London 2017 at The London Stadium on August 5, 2017 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Olympic champion Wayde van Niekerk marked a long-awaited return to competitive athletics by winning the 400m at the Gala dei Castelli held at the Municipal Stadium in Bellinzona, Switzerland on Tuesday.

Running in Lane 4, the South African ran 45.58 seconds to finish ahead of Jochem Dobber of the Netherlands and Poland’s Karol Zalewski in a low-key return after recovering from a debilitating knee injury and then COVID-19.

The 28-year-old stormed to Olympic gold four years ago in Rio de Janeiro, clocking a world record time of 43.03 seconds, beating the time of 43.18 seconds set by Michael Johnson during the 1999 World Championships in Athletics in Seville, Spain.

In June 2017, after a 30.81 seconds victory in the seldom-run 300 metres distance, breaking Michael Johnson’s world-best time of 30.85 which was set in 2000, Van Niekerk became the only sprinter in history to have run sub-10, sub-20, sub-31 and sub-44 performances at 100m, 200m, 300m and 400m respectively.

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However, things took a turn for the worse when he tore knee ligaments at a charity touch rugby game in October of the same year, which required surgery. A lengthy rehabilitation marred with setbacks has kept him out of action for almost three years.

After making his return to running in Bloemfontein in February, van Niekerk set his sights higher.

Despite the postponement of Tokyo 2020 to 2021, the 28-year-old said there were positives for him as he sought to reach his peak once more, as he was before the freak injury in 2017.

In April, in an interview with the Olympic Channel that not only did he have a return to top form in mind, but he intends to lower his world record under 43 seconds.

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“I am hungrier than before,” he said.

“I still believe I can go sub-43. I can go way better than what I have in 100m and 200m, that’s where my mind was before the injury and that’s where my mind is at for the future.”

Meanwhile, sprinter Akani Simbine extended his winning streak to three in Europe with another victory in the 100m in Bellinzona. He raced to first place in 10.02, just managing to hold off Italian Filippo Tortu (10.07), who was followed by Sri Lanka’s Yupun Mudiyanselage (10.24).

Another South African, Antonio Alkana, finished third in the 110m hurdles with a season’s best time of 13.40. Simbine and Alkana will now move on to Rome to take part in the Diamond League event on Thursday.

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