It might not be Varsity Athletics season; football season is in full swing, but it is impossible to ignore what is happening at the on-going IAAF World Championships in London. The cream of South African athletics is competing in the biggest event on the world athletics calendar. More than 2000 athletes from nearly 200 countries are competing for top honours.
Athletics South Africa (ASA) has sent a talented team of 27 athletes to fly the nation’s flag. This is where Varsity Athletics fits in – there are a number of athletes that broke through the ranks of this outstanding initiative, who are taking part in the world champs.
Superstars such as Wayde van Niekerk, Akani Simbine, Rushwahl Samaail, Caster Semenya, Clarence Munyai, Thando Roto, Justine Palframan are but a few of those given the platform to showcase their talent through this development program. The IAAF World Championships is the world cup of athletics. Around 40 000 passionate British fans attend the morning sessions and that number increases for the evening sessions to 55 000. It seems like yesterday that Wayde “Dreamer” lifted the Varsity Athletics crowd to their feet when he turned out for Kovsies during Varsity Athletics competitions a few years ago.
Van Niekerk and Simbine met and started their close friendship at Varsity Athletics. I still remember Van Niekerk being the cover of the Varsity Athletics magazine, as I also made a contribution in that copy of the publication.
On Thursday, the two good friends were hoping to step onto the podium side by side in the 200m to pick up medals – preferably with gold and silver medals. To them it matters little who takes it as their friendship means more than the colour of medals dangling around their necks.
This is what Van Niekerk said after the pair qualified for the semi-final heats taking place on Wednesday. “Our dream is still alive nothing will make me happier than to have Akani next to me when I step onto the podium. He is a close friend of mine and a good athlete. It would be great for SA athletics and our friendship too.”
Simbine was hoping and praying to share the podium with Wayde, but it was not to be.
It would have been the first time in South African sprint history that two medals were produced in the same event. Unfortunately, Simbine finished seventh in his semi-final and Van Niekerk snuck in by 0.02 seconds to qualify as one of the fastest losers, finishing third in his semi.
These are exciting times for South African athletics. Van Niekerk draws the biggest cheer each time he steps onto the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park track. Simbine is also making a name for himself and he pushed hard to finish fifth in the men’s 100m final on Saturday clocking in 10.1 seconds in a pulsating final two positions behind legendary Usian Bolt who finished in third position with a 9.95. Justin Gatlin was crowned the world champion in a time of 9.92 while his compatriot Christian Coleman got 9.94 sec in the most entertaining event so far in the championships.
Van Niekerk is not just a superstar in SA anymore, he is now a global superstar. Commentators go crazy when they announce his name and the passionate crowd goes wild. This is the man who broke records for fun at university level and now he has cemented his place in the athletics hall of fame. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me to salute and congratulate our two medalists in the long jump Luvo Manyonga and Rushwal Samaai, who bagged gold and bronze medals respectively in the men’s long jump final on Saturday.
This is a testament that Varsity Athletics is playing its part to develop and transform the sport. Samaai was a long jump champion not long ago in Varsity Athletics and today he is the third best long jumper in the world. The former UJ student jumped 8.32m to take home a silver medal. Caster Semenya also won herself a bronze medal in the women’s 1 500m final. She clocked in 4:02:90 in an event that is not her specialty.
She specializes in the 800m and she is without a doubt the overwhelming favourite to win the gold medal in the main event on the last day of the competition, on Sunday. Athletics in our country is on the rise and Varsity Athletics should also take credit for the role it is playing to develop the sport.
The exposure it gives to athletes in front of TV and a bigger audience has enable them to grow in confidence and that resulted in them having the ability to overcome the nerves on the world stage. There is also the sprint revolution inspired by the likes of Van Niekerk and Simbine, who learned their craft at varsity level. The world is now forced to take note of South African athletes.
With South Africa third on the medal table, with two bronze and two gold medals, three of those coming from former Varsity Athletics stars, the importance of Varsity Athletics is worth its weight in gold.
By Charles Baloyi
Sports writer for the City Press, Daily Sun and Sunday Sun