Given how many practically unheard of athletes explode on to the scene and immediately do great things these days, it’s nigh impossible to talk about which to look out for in athletics.
Make no mistake, there’ll be many more athletes who make their mark this year, but these five are definites.
Clarence Munyai (20)
Having shown us a glimpse of his stratospheric potential with that jaw-dropping 19.69-second 200m sprint – a new national record – in the semifinals of the SA Senior Championships, there will be all kinds of expectations of him to replicate or better what is the 11th-fastest time of the event.
Mitigating circumstances, such as long-standing thigh strain issues, were responsible for Munyai getting nowhere near the time again last year. This year is his chance to show what he’s made of.
Wayde van Niekerk (26)
If there are any positives to take from the South African global superstar’s enforced break last year because of a knee injury, it is that he got the rest he probably needed after four hectic years on the circuit.
Starting with Commonwealth Games silver in the 400m in 2014, Van Niekerk has since become the reigning champ at the IAAF World Championships twice in the same event; the Olympic champ; the world 400m record holder; and the world 200m silver medallist in 2017. Not only was that physically stressful, it also came with a fair bit of mental disintegration.
But now that he’s had his “sabbatical”, there are plenty of questions. How has the knee injury affected his running? Will he still be the same unbeatable Wayde? Will he focus on the 400m or the 200m? All will be revealed soon enough.
Sokwakhana Zazini (18)
Last year, Zazini – the world Under-18 record-holder for the 400m hurdles – won both the hurdles and 400m flat races in the SA Junior National Championships; gave national 400m hurdles champion Lindsay Hanekom the hurry-up in the senior race; and added the world junior title to his world youth championship in Tampere, Finland. There’s something once-in-a-generation about this young man and one can only imagine how much better he’ll be without the cares of school this year.
Ncincilili Titi (25)
Up until he won the 200m at the African Athletics Championships this year, Titi seemed destined to be a mere curiosity factor – the sprinter who always wanted to fly planes and was doing his best work in South Carolina in the US, away from the country’s sprinting nerve centre. But once he won a continental championship, in a year in which he got perilously close to the sub-20-second milestone by running 20 seconds flat, he became one of the many sprinters to keep an eye on in a country teeming with fast men.
In a year in which he will be a full-time professional for the first time, Titi, whose strength is working towards peaking for major championships, will make for interesting viewing.
Zenéy van der Walt (18)
Zeney va der Walt
In a country that reserves its unadulterated praise for its men in sports, Van der Walt is probably our best-kept secret. Fresh out of school this year, the 18-year-old is coming in fast from last year, where she broke Myrtle Bothma’s 35-year-old national junior record; pushed national champion and Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Wenda Nel to within 0.04 seconds of the win at the national championships; and won the 400m hurdles at the World Junior Championships in Tampere.
That she got the record, matched the more experienced Nel stride-for-stride, and then went on to win a major title suggests she’s no flat-track bully who does her best work against the clock.
No less a person than Bothma has given Van der Walt the seal of approval, tipping the former Afrikaanse Hoër Meisieskool pupil to also go on to break her senior national record of 53.74 seconds. Van der Walt’s personal best is currently 55.05 seconds.