Olympic champion comfortably strikes gold amid controversy away from the track
Wayde van Niekerk successfully completed the first half of his IAAF World Championships double attempt by comfortably securing 400m gold – then insisted he wished he could hand his medal over to Isaac Makwala of Botswana, who was prevented from competing by the IAAF.
The questions surrounding matters off the track hung thick in the air as the South African world record-holder, who is also aiming for 200m success in London, quietly celebrated after winning in 43.98 from Steven Gardner of the Bahamas (44.41) and Qatar’s Abdalelah Haroun (44.48).
There was a layer of controversy covering the race but it centred on a man who wasn’t even taking part. Makwala had been expected to provide a particularly stern challenge to Van Niekerk, but instead he was turned away from the stadium.
The reason? He had withdrawn from the 200m heats the previous day on medical orders after showing symptoms of the gastroenteritis bug which has affected a number of competitors staying at one of the official championships hotels.
Despite claiming he had recovered and was ready to run the 400m, the IAAF insisted Makwala needed to remain in quarantine.
“I could have run. I did my warm-up well and I was ready to run,” he had told the BBC. “I feel ready to run today, tonight. This is bad. Sometimes I feel heartbroken. I feel like it is sabotage.”
Simon O’Brien, a member of the Botswana medical team who claimed he had only been given late notice of the official reasons behind Makwala’s enforced absence, said: “The diagnosis is that he has a notifiable infectious disease. But he’s fit and very well to run. His heart rate is 60, body temperature 36.9C – which is perfectly normal. He’s fit, he’s very well, and he’s being kept away by the IAAF.”
However a statement from the governing body, released only minutes before the 400m final began, read: “Isaac Makwala has been withdrawn by the IAAF Medical Delegate from tonight’s 400m final after the athlete was diagnosed with an infectious disease on Monday.
“As per UK health regulations, it was requested that he be quarantined in his room for 48 hours, a period which ends at 14:00hrs tomorrow (9 Aug).
“These procedures are recommended by Public Health England and were clearly explained to the teams in writing on Sunday (6 Aug) and in person to the Botswanan delegation, a member of which was present with many other representatives of teams at a meeting that took place at the Guoman Tower Hotel on Sunday.
“The decision to withdraw him from the 200m heats last night and the 400m final today was made on the basis of a medical examination conducted in the warm-up medical centre by a qualified doctor on Monday (7 Aug) and recorded in the electronic medical record system of the championships. A copy of this medical record was given to a member of the BOT team medical staff following the examination.
“The team doctor, team leader and team physio had been informed following the medical examination that the athlete should be quarantined for 48 hours and would therefore be missing the 400m final on Tuesday.
“The IAAF is very sorry that the hard work and talent of Isaac Makwala won’t be on display tonight but we have to think of the welfare of all athletes.”
The Tower Hotel has said that Public Health England has confirmed there is no evidence that the hotel was the source of the illness.
“We can confirm that regretfully a small number of our guests have been suffering from an illness,” read a statement. “We have worked collaboratively with the EHO and IAAF to investigate the origins of the illness and can confirm that the hotel was not the source of the illness.
“We have followed strict hygiene protocol, ensuring that those affected are not in contact with other guests and all public areas have been thoroughly sanitised. We continue to liaise with the medical authorities and the IAAF to ensure the comfort of those guests affected and the health and wellbeing of all our guests remains a priority.”
Regardless of the ins and outs of the situation, there is no disputing the talents of the man who ultimately finished first when the action did get under way. Would Van Niekerk set his sights on breaking his world record of 43.03 or hold something in reserve with the 200m final in mind?
The question was answered by the particularly cool evening. “It was really freezing!” said the 25-year-old, who became the third man, after Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner, to win 400m gold at successive world championships. “I tried to move into an extra gear but I couldn’t get my stride. I saw how far ahead I was and immediately thought of my health.”
Van Niekerk had the luxury of being able to ease down on his way to victory ahead of Gardiner, who had broken his national record in qualifying, and was almost caught by the fast finishing Haroun.
After his win, the Olympic champion spared more than a thought for his missing rival.
“I saw him (Makwala) before the 200m heats and the only thing I could think of was just wrapping my arms around him and telling him to get well soon,” said Van Niekerk. “As much as we all strive to leave with gold medals we also want to go out there and have best guys on the track with us. It’s such a massive pity. I have lot of sympathy for him.
“A lot of fingers are being pointed right now. I just know he’s ill. It is quite disappointing, I would have loved him to have his opportunity. I really wish I could give him my medal, to be honest, but this is sports, these things happen and each and every one of us need to go out there and fight for our opportunities. It could have been any one of us.”
In the women’s 200m, again the biggest news came away from the track when it was announced that America’s Tori Bowie had withdrawn following the fall she sustained after winning the 100m.
Holland’s Dafne Schippers qualified fastest for the semi-finals in 22.63, with Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas clocking 22.69 and the Ivory Coast’s Marie Josee Ta Lou in 22.70.
There was a hugely encouraging performance from Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith, whose return from injury continued with a season’s best 22.73 in winning her heat. Bianca Williams advanced with her time of 23.30, while Shannon Hylton narrowly missed out with a time of 23.39.
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