Van Niekerk is heading overseas to prepare for his toughest goals this year, but he doesn’t need to travel abroad to find a challenge.
While it’s unclear which event he’ll contest at next week’s ASA Senior Championships in Pretoria, he will find strong competition wherever he looks.
In the 100m and 200m he’ll face SA record holder Akani Simbine, and he’s also got the likes of resurgent speedster Anaso Jobodwana, in-form dangerman Luxolo Adams and unpredictable rocket Clarence Munyai, provided they are all injury free, to deal with.
Even in the 400m, a distance at which he has not really been tested since his comeback, Van Niekerk will need to be ready to square up against junior prodigy Lythe Pillay.
As successful as he was under former coach Ans Botha, Van Niekerk believes he needs another edge if he is to break the 43-second barrier in the 400m event, announcing in February that he would be working with US-based coach Lance Brauman in the build-up to his title defence at the Tokyo Olympics.
Though Covid restrictions have delayed his departure to the US, where he will train with 200m world champion Noah Lyles, it remains a key part of his plans this year.
Botha and Van Niekerk were a formidable team, and it’s a risky move, but to break new ground sometimes requires a fresh approach.
Not even Van Niekerk knows whether it’s a good move, but he will know soon enough. As will we.
Van Niekerk talks regularly about his ambition to break his own 400m world record of 43.03, but whether or not he will be able to chase that goal so soon after his return is unclear.
What is clear is that he’s got a real chance of defending his Olympic one-lap title in Tokyo.
In his absence, Steven Gardiner of the Bahamas won the world title in 2019 in a swift time of 43.48.
Since Van Niekerk was sidelined by a knee injury after retaining his world title in 2017, American athletes Michael Norman (43.45) and Fred Kerley (43.64) have also dipped under 44 seconds, along with Akeem Bloomfield of Jamaica (43.94).
So he’s got his work cut out for him against a new generation, and he hasn’t faced them yet at their best, but if Van Niekerk’s confidence and early form are a fair judge of his potential, his opponents are likely to be as wary of him as he is of them.