Wayde van Niekerk sees silver lining despite Olympic 'downer'

The South African is one of several Olympic champions that could benefit from the delay to Tokyo 2020.

Wayde van Niekerk is clearly a torn man.

The decision to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympics until 2021 due to the coronavirus outbreak came as a blow to the 27-year-old South African, but he now wants to focus on the silver lining of the situation.

“I’m trying to see the positive in it,” the Rio 2016 400m gold medallist, who only returned to competitive athletics in the last few months, told the Daily Maverick.

“As much as it is a downer that it’s not happening this year, it will still happen. There is another opportunity for us as athletes to showcase our talent.”

“I view it as more time to prepare, more time to work and more time to invest in my career. Tokyo is just another stepping stone to the entire legacy that I want to leave behind.”

It is an optimistic mindset that is shared by other returning Olympic stars Momota Kento, Pau Gasol, Florent Manaudou and Joseph Schooling, who also hope to benefit from the delay.

Singaporean swimmer Schooling defeated Chad le Clos and Michael Phelps to win 100m butterfly gold and grab global headlines, before falling out of love with the sport, and piling on extra kilos.

"I think this extra year will do really good things for him,” Singapore national swimming head coach Stephan Widmer told The Straits Times.

"There is still a stretch to go. But, going by what he has done in the last two to three months and how excited he is, I think he is one of those who looks at the situation and thinks, 'Okay, I get another year to do some great work before I step on the blocks in Tokyo 2021.'

"Instead of tapering for an Olympics this July and August, we can now try new things when we can start training together again.

Elsewhere in the pool, London 2012 50m Freestyle champ Manaudou highlighted the potential personal benefits of a postponement, while also acknowledging the overall disappointment of the sport.

“Of course this is a bit of a disappointment because we all had 2020 as an Olympic year in our head,” the Frenchman, who halted his swimming career after Rio in order to pursue his passion handball, before returning to swimming in 2019, said to L’Equipe.

“With the virus spreading so fast there was no other choice. But I almost feel a bit fortunate because it gives me one more year of preparation” - Florent Manadou

Pau Gasol has helped the Spanish basketball team to three Olympic medals (two silver and a bronze) over his illustrious career, and the year delay to the Games increases his chances of playing in a fifth Olympic Games.

“We are in this together and together we will win the gold medal against coronavirus,” the 39-year-old said via a spokesperson.

“The IOC decision gives me a bit more tranquillity and a bit more time to be able to heal my injured foot.”

This sentiment was echoed by Kosovan Olympic champion judoka Majlinda Kelmendi on social media, as she also continues her injury rehabilitation.

But the delay will also give Gasol’s potential rivals a chance to improve as well.

Take the Nigerian men’s basketball team, whose head coach Mike Brown believes will be better prepared as a result of the postponement.

Obviously, it’s disappointing. This whole thing is unfortunate. Not just from an Olympic standpoint, but it’s unfortunate for all the lives affected in the world,” Brown told The Undefeated, before highlighting the silver lining from a basketball perspective.

“To have another year to grasp, not only the talent level of the team, but the direction the team needs to go and making sure we are able to put the best Nigerian team out there, it’s a welcomed advantage to have a little bit more time for a new guy like myself.”

A stark reminder that the coronavirus has affected an immediate circle so much wider than just the athletes.

Despite the overarching feeling of disappointment in Japan that the Games won't take place in 2020, the host nation may stand to benefit in the field of play too, through Momota Kento.

The two-time badminton world champion was in a car crash on March 6, critically hampering his home Olympic preparations. The extra break could now prove key in his conquest for a gold medal.

"I pray the situation surrounding the coronavirus quiets as quickly as possible. Me personally, I will cherish each and every day that comes and train harder than ever," the 25-year-old Tweeted after the IOC's announcement.

A delayed Olympics will always be first and foremost, an unforeseen blow to everyone involved. But for these athletes, it also means a second-chance to ensure that they compete at the top of their game.

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