LONDON (Reuters) - South African sprinter Akani Simbine will look to become the fastest man on earth at next month’s world championships but he will run with a heavy heart that his compatriot and friend Caster Semenya will not be joining him in Doha.
Simbine, 25, has enjoyed a stellar year in preparation for his fourth world championships, winning 100-metres gold at last year’s Commonwealth Games and triumphing at London’s Diamond League meeting in July.
However, what should be a golden period for South African athletics with Simbine’s rise and the achievements of Olympic 400m champion Wayde van Niekerk has been overshadowed by the ongoing saga of Semenya’s participation in the sport.
The 28-year-old double 800m Olympic gold medallist is fighting an International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) regulation that female middle-distance runners with a high natural level of testosterone must take medication to reduce it.
The Swiss Federal Tribunal (SFT) last month reversed a ruling that temporarily lifted the IAAF’s testosterone regulations imposed on Semenya, effectively ruling her out of the Sept. 28-Oct. 6 world championships in Qatar.
Simbine, who has talked to Semenya on the phone, said the case was sad for the whole country.
“There’s a kind of knock-on (effect) on the South African sporting world, not just athletics because Caster was Queen of South African sports and now we can’t see her anymore,” he told Reuters in telephone interview.
“But as athletes and sports people we support her as much as we can... because she is one of us at the end of the day. To show the world that we are together as one and she’s not fighting this on her own.
“Seeing a friend going through something like this is heartbreaking and upsetting and is really not nice.”
Simbine has his own goals to focus on now, however, starting with his bid to become the first South African to win a sprint medal at the world championships.
Born in a poor suburb of Johannesburg, Simbine flourished on the track while studying an Information Science degree at the University of Pretoria, encouraged by his parents who insisted he made sure of being able to make a living outside of athletics.
They need not have worried so much, though, as he set the 100m national record of 9.89 seconds in Hungary in 2016 at the age of 22.
That was a month before Simbine’s Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro where he finished fifth in the final but almost a second behind sprinting great Usain Bolt.
With the multiple world champion Jamaican now retired from the sport, many are vying to be the next king of the track.
Simbine is aware of the fierce competition he faces, particularly from Americans. Christian Coleman has the world leading time this year of 9.81 seconds while compatriot Noah Lyles is second with 9.86.
Also up there is world champion Justin Gatlin who will be defending his title on what could well be his final appearance in the global event.
But Simbine, whose Diamond League winning time of 9.93 is tied-fifth best in the world this year, is confident he can win the final on Sept. 28.
“I believe I can be the best and if I’m in the sport then I can’t just say ‘Oh well, Christian is running fast, Noah is running fast, Gatlin is running fast, I can’t beat them’ – then I’m in the sport for the wrong reasons,” he said.
“So for me it’s just about the right belief in what my coach and I are doing and that we are producing something that’s not been seen before in South Africa because there hasn’t been a South African on 100m podium, so for us it’s a really great, exciting thing.
“I know where they (the Americans) are at. I know toe to toe if they are at their best and I am at my best, it will be a good race.”
After Doha, attention turns to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics which Simbine is planning for, helped by the support of commercial deals such as his three-year sponsorship by Avanti Communications signed this month.
The Games may be a year away, but Simbine, who was a promising football player before deciding to focus on sprinting, is daring to dream.
“Every day,” he said when asked if he allows himself to visualise crossing the finish line in first place.
“Not a day passes where I don’t dream of holding the gold medal and being the fastest man and just achieving goals that I set for myself and showing the world that a South African boy can be the best in the world.”
Reporting by Christian Radnedge,; Editing by Ed Osmond