Having overcome his latest setback, 400m world record holder Wayde van Niekerk says he is excited and ready to make his long-awaited return to international action when he lines up over his specialist distance at a track meeting in Bellinzona on Tuesday night.
Van Niekerk's management team confirmed on Monday that he would turn out in the one-lap race at the European Tour Bronze Label meeting.
It was set to be his first overseas race in more than three years, with the 28-year-old sprinter having been sidelined by a serious knee injury shortly after securing 400m gold and 200m silver at the 2017 World Championships in London.
"My body is in good health, which I'm grateful for, and I'm looking forward to racing again," said Van Niekerk, who was expected to defend his Olympic title in Tokyo next year after setting a world best of 43.03 to win the one-lap title at the Rio 2016 Games.
"We don't have any goals for the meeting. I'm just excited to see how my body feels again in a race situation, and it will be nice to loosen up the legs."
Having clocked quick times of 10.10 (100m) and 20.13 (200m) on the domestic circuit earlier this year, Van Niekerk had been expected to make his international comeback at a meeting in Trieste last month, but he was withdrawn at the last minute after testing positive for Covid-19.
Despite being asymptomatic, he was forced into self-isolation for 25 days, before returning to full training late last month.
The setback meant he would compete in only one race before returning home from his European camp later this week, but Van Niekerk was hoping the one-off performance would be enough for him to gauge his progress in the build-up to the 2021 season, following a patchy 2020 campaign which was largely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
"It will give us a good indication of where I am in my training, after having to spend 25 days in isolation, and we can then focus on what needs to be done to gain some momentum towards the 2021 season," he said.
Aside from Van Niekerk, the line-up in Bellinzona also included three other South African athletes.
National record holder Akani Simbine was in the field for the men's 100m sprint, African champion Ruswahl Samaai was in the long jump event and African record holder Antonio Alkana was in the 110m hurdles race.
Timeline of Van Niekerk's career from 2017:
August 2017 – Attempting a rare double, Van Niekerk wins 400m gold, successfully retaining his global title, and goes on to take 200m silver at the World Championships in London.
October 2017 – Van Niekerk undergoes surgery on his right knee after sustaining medial and lateral tears of the meniscus and tearing his anterior cruciate ligament while playing a celebrity touch rugby match in Cape Town.
February 2019 – Competing in his first official race in 18 months, Van Niekerk coasts to victory in the 400m event at the Free State Championships in Bloemfontein.
July 2019 – After picking up the intensity in training, Van Niekerk's management team confirms his ongoing rehabilitation has been set back by a bone bruise and he later withdraws from the 2019 World Championships.
February 2020 – Van Niekerk clocks 10.10 in the 100m event and 20.31 over the 200m distance at a domestic meeting in Bloemfontein, making an impressive return to action, before winning the Free State provincial 400m title in 47.42 in poor conditions.
July 2020 – Emerging from the coronavirus lockdown, Van Niekerk tests positive for Covid-19 on the eve of his anticipated return to action in Trieste, and though he is asymptomatic, he is forced into a 25-day isolation period.
August 2020 – Van Niekerk is given the green light to return to full training with coach Ans Botha at their European camp in Italy.
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