Athletics-Record-holder Van Niekerk eases through 400m heat, U.S. trio advance

By Amy Tennery

EUGENE, Ore. (Reuters) -South African world record-holder Wayde van Niekerk made a confident return to the World Championships on Sunday, easing through his 400 metres heat, as a trio of Americans also advanced.

Rio Olympic champion and twice world champion van Niekerk set a speedy pace through the first half of the track but slowed through the finish to win, conserving his energy a year after he failed to reach the final in Tokyo, citing mental struggles.

“I need to open up my legs a little bit to get my muscles going and see what I need to work on before I get to the semi-final,” said Van Niekerk, who won back-to-back world titles in 2015 and 2017 but missed 2019 due to injury.

“I feel much, much better but obviously my mentality is to get into the finals and see what happens.”

Americans Michael Norman and Champion Allison, the only men to break 44 seconds this season, faced little threat in Eugene, Oregon, as the action carried on under scorching sun.

Norman, who suffered a hamstring injury in Doha and failed to reach the podium in Tokyo, looked comfortable on the springy Hayward Field track, easing up through the final metres to cheers from the home fans as he aims to turn around his run of tough luck.

“I’ve had this goal for three years now and track hasn’t been fair to me the last three years but I’m going to make this my year and compete to the best of my ability,” said Norman.

“It was a super controlled, super easy race and I’ll go back and watch film and see what areas I can improve on.”

Making his world debut, the 23-year-old Allison easily rolled through to Wednesday’s semi-final.

“It was good to get out there, but I approach it like a normal track meet,” said Allison. “You just have to go out there and race and be yourself.”

Compatriot Michael Cherry, a relay champion in Tokyo and Doha, also went through.

Three times Olympic medallist Kirani James of Grenada advanced along with Botswana’s Bayapo Ndori, who produced the fastest time of the day with 44.87, a personal best.

The event kicked off without the reigning Olympic and world champion Steven Gardiner of the Bahamas, who is sidelined with injury.

On the women’s side, Jamaican Stephenie Ann McPherson produced the fastest time in 50.15, as Bahamian Olympic champion and 2019 silver medallist Shaunae Miller-Uibo rolled through to Wednesday’s semi-final with a comfortable win.

“We have a long break in between but the main thing is to get through the rounds. Anything is possible,” Miller-Uibo said.

“I just want to get familiar with things for the next round. I feel great.”

Marileidy Paulino and Fiordaliza Cofil also advanced after collecting mixed-relay gold on Friday for the Dominican Republic.

“I didn’t know how my body would recover from the mixed relay,” Cofil told reporters. “I have a coach who trusts me and does everything for me. He believes I can make it to the final. That’s what we are here for.”

Reigning champion Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain is serving a two-year ban for an anti-doping violation for missing out-of-competition tests.

(Reporting by Amy Tennery in Eugene, Oregon, additional reporting by Gene CherryEditing by Toby Davis)