Mind games: Wayde van Niekerk glances at Baboloki Thebe as he beats the athlete from Botswana in the 400m semifinal. Picture: SHAUN BOTTERILL/GETTY IMAGES
Mind games: Wayde van Niekerk glances at Baboloki Thebe as he beats the athlete from Botswana in the 400m semifinal. Picture: SHAUN BOTTERILL/GETTY IMAGES

London — Is Wayde van Niekerk really struggling to hold his lead coming off the bend? Do not believe a word of it.

The 2017 edition of Van Niekerk is no longer the same sprinter who won the world title two years ago — or even the one who took the Olympic crown.

The influence of Usain Bolt is clear on SA’s top track and field athlete at the world championships in London.

In the first two rounds of the 400m, Van Niekerk emulated the dethroned Jamaican superstar by eyeballing his rivals on the home straight.

He repeated it on Monday when dead-heating with Britain’s Daniel Talbot in the 200m heat. Van Niekerk eased up as he reached the line and twice glanced at Talbot as they both clocked 20.16 to qualify for Wednesday’s semifinals.

The South African is psyching out his prey before they even get to the final.

That is a ploy Bolt used many times, most recently with less success in the 100m semifinals when he eyeballed new US hero Christian Coleman. It has normally worked.

But what has been more curious is Van Niekerk’s race strategy in his last three outings — in every case he has come off the bend in second place.

That is highly unusual for
the South African rocket, owner of the 43.03sec world record and the Olympic Games and world crowns.

He has no equal, but three times in a row he has been second coming off the bend.

It started at the Diamond League meeting in Monaco, where he overtook Isaac Makwala of Botswana on the home straight for the victory.

Van Niekerk did it to Nery Brenes of Costa Rica in their heat in London and again in the
semifinals to Baboloki Thebe, also of Botswana.

Three times he has hauled in rivals in front of him and then still looked around and eased off over the final few metres.

Three times in a row is no coincidence, so what gives?

Asked about it, Van Niekerk replied: "The final is what counts so that’s where I want to come first out of the bend."

The little smile as he answered suggested he was playing mind games. Makwala and Thebe, two of the medal contenders in London, have been dealt with, so to speak.

On paper, American Fred Kerley and Makwala are the South African’s biggest threats, having come the closest to his 43.62sec world lead in 2017 with top efforts of 43.70 and 43.84, respectively.

Then there is Steven Gardiner of Bahamas, a promising talent who produced an impressive 43.89 personal best in the semifinals, although one wonders if he can go much faster in the final. At 21, he is likely to offer Van Niekerk a few headaches in years to come, but probably not on Tuesday night.

Thebe is the fastest of the remaining finalists, with a best of 44.02, but unless he or any of the other runners can dip under 44sec by a big margin, they are unlikely to have the beating of Van Niekerk.

The 400m is Van Niekerk’s to lose. The only possible question mark over his double is how he will do in the 200m.

But do not expect him to fail. Superstars tend to plan their moves carefully.

Besides Van Niekerk, Clarence Munyai and Akani Simbine have also qualified for the 200m semifinals. Munyai ran 20.19 in his heat on Monday while Simbine clocked 20.26.

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