Akani Simbine had envisaged this being the year he finally came good. Much more experienced as an athlete and significantly matured as a man, the 26-year-old sprinter was confident he would attain the big event podium finish his talent so deserves.
But like most athletes the world over, Simbine’s 2020 dream has been deferred as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic that brought the world to a standstill, and as a consequence ensured that the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to next year.
Simbine, though, isn’t a stranger to having to wait a little longer to attain his goals. If there’s an athlete who will take this setback on the chin, it is him. He might be a superstar athlete who counts the great Usain Bolt as a friend and has Yohan Blake on speed dial, but the celebrated national hero found himself on the receiving end of expletives from adoring fans disappointed that he finished fourth at the 2019 World Athletics Championships.
What those fans are not aware of is that Simbine’s career is on an upward trajectory. This, after all, is a man who started athletics pretty late (in 2010) and to be at the level where he goes to major events as one of the favourites is a big deal.
“Athletics was not always my chosen field,” says Simbine from his base at the University of Pretoria’s High Performance Centre. “I was actually coerced into it, because I wanted to be a soccer star. And I believe I had what it took to make it. I dreamt of playing for Kaizer Chiefs and I thought I was on my way to realising that.
“I was playing semi-professional for Highlands [Park] in the Castle League and I was a pretty useful right winger,” he says chuckling, adding that he fancied himself as the local Michael Owen.
But his principal at Edenglen High School recognised the athlete in him and redirected him towards the track. “He believed in me so much that he found me a coach. But the coach was in Germiston and the commute was just too much for me.”
It did not help his confidence that he was competing with the “haves” while his parents struggled financially. “I remember how intimidated I used to get by all those kids I ran with. They had spikes, proper kit and even their own starting blocks, plus energy drinks. Me, I would drink my Oros before a run wearing my sneakers. I stood no chance man,” he remembers with a wry smile
“And they would beat me badly, so much so that my mom would say, ‘Those boys run like horses.’ I just did not understand. I envied those kids. I wanted to have the blocks and all that other stuff because I believed I would beat them if I was on their level.”
Being smashed on the track
He still did well enough, however, to represent his school. “In 2012, I ran at the SA Junior Champs and got beat badly. Wayde [van Niekerk] and them smashed me. It was the qualifiers for the World Championships and I did not even come close.”
The beating did not end. Simbine went through the kind of humiliation that would have seen many youngsters throw in the towel.
“There was a time when I wanted to get out. I ran six races and never finished better than sixth place in any of them. I was either 8th, 7th or 6th, no matter how hard I tried. After one race, I went home and cried to my mom and told her I do not want to go back. I felt that running was just not for me. She didn’t say much, at least she did not encourage me to quit, yet she did not persuade me to persevere.”
But the competitor in him would not allow him to give up. “I was so tired of being beaten that I said I have to prove to them I am not that bad. And I kept on training and working on my run.”
He got his breakthrough at the Zone 6 Championships in Zambia, where he won bronze in an age group record time of 10.19s.
“God’s favour was upon me that day because I was just going there to run the relay. I ran that race so well that people were asking ‘Is he on steroids?’ and ‘Is the track the right length?’ I was not bothered though. I knew that my time had come.”
At the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, Russia, he had to pinch himself continuously as he lined up against the sprinting greats.
“Just the year before, I had watched the Olympics final on TV in awe as Yohan Blake challenged Usain Bolt. And now, there I was, lining up against Justin Gatlin. Of course, he annihilated me. I was humbled. But I was also inspired, I started believing.”
That belief was further fuelled by a meeting with his hero Blake, who advised him to “get stronger”.
“Just the other day I saw a picture of me meeting Yohan for the first time. I have this cheesy smile as I look at him, somewhat in disbelief. It was the coolest thing ever and he turned out to be a great guy. He was very open and told me I need to get stronger if I am to ever beat him.”
He heeded the advice and eventually beat his hero in 2017, showing the Jamaican the bottom of his spikes consistently since then. Now, as a celebrated superstar, Simbine looks back on those tough early years of his career as the building blocks that have shaped him into the athlete he is now.
“Those experiences have helped me grow. I know now that the journey to the top is not easy. Those struggles have got me to be the resilient athlete who keeps on trying and always improving.”
Getting over Doha’s disappointment
And so it is that when many were criticising him for letting the country down by not bringing home a medal from last year’s World Athletics Championships in Doha, Simbine forgave them, “for they do not know my journey.”
Without Van Niekerk and Caster Semenya, Team SA pinned its track medal hopes on Simbine. But he finished in the dreaded fourth place, just missing out on the podium. Yet he looks back at 2019 with pride: “It [criticism] does not affect me much. Yes, I’ve disappointed people and they will always be critical, and they all become coaches who know better. But I know I had the most consistent season in a long time. I finished third overall in the world rankings and for me, that is an achievement to be proud of.”
He has picked up on his shortfalls as an athlete and was intent on working on them to be ready to shine in Tokyo, to improve on his fifth-place finish at his maiden Olympic appearance four years ago in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“Of course it will mean the world to win Olympic gold. It is something I dream about.”
It is a dream that has been deferred for now. But perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise for Simbine, as it gives him extra time to work on his finishing, which he feels “is not as strong as my start”.
That sorted, who wouldn’t bet on the reluctant runner who could have been a Kaizer Chiefs star finally attaining that podium finish at a global event?