Wayde van Niekerk and Caster Semenya will spearhead one of the largest teams ever to represent South Africa at the 20th Confederation of African Athletes’ African Senior Championships which start in Durban tomorrow - with the hosts seeking to retain the overall title they won in Marrakech two years ago.
South Africa has selected 96 athletes for the Championships, which run from June 22 to 26 and have attracted a record number of entries - more than 800m from 54 countries - in what is an ideally timed opportunity to tune-up, and in some cases, to confirm qualification, for the Rio 2016 Games.
Semenya, the 2009 world 800m champion and London 2012 silver medallist, has won three successive IAAF Diamond League races and established herself as favourite for the Rio 2016.
Her form has coincided with the International Association of Athletics Federations being forced to drop rules that regulate testosterone levels in female athletes, with an appeal expected next year.
The relatively unkown 18-year-old Semenya was the subject of a gender test scandal when she won the 2009 world title.
Van Niekerk, the world 400m champion, will run over 200m at the Kings Park Athletics Stadium, which was recently resurfaced and upgraded to meet IAAF standards.
He won over 400m in 44.28sec at last weekend’s Adidas Boost Games in Boston, extending his unbeaten run this season.
“It’s a massive opportunity for us to showcase the various talents of our athletes to the African continent,” said Aleck Skhosana, President of Athletics South Africa.
“With the slogan of this Championships being ‘I am an African’, the size and quality of this team will demonstrate to the continent that South Africa is truly part of Africa.
“You cannot ask for any better validation than this where the whole continent sends a message that we trust you as an organisation and we trust you as a country.
“The continent has made it loud and clear that the CAA did not make a mistake when they stood with us in ensuring that we remain on course to give the world another great African show.
“It will no doubt be a great event as it is clear that countries are taking Africa’s much-awaited premier Track and Field Meeting very seriously.
“The top performing countries have registered and are bringing their elite athletes with them. This exciting.”
Since the first staging of the event in 1979 the event has been dominated by three nations, with Nigeria topping the medals table on eight occasions, South Africa on seven occasions, including the last Championships in Marrakech two years ago, and Kenya, who have been victorious on three occasions.
The only other country to top the standings has been Algeria in 2000.
Nigeria’s US-based Blessing Okagbare will defend her women’s 100m title as her country seeks to regain the top billing it last had in 2012 by sending a strong team.
South Africa’s 100 and 200m champion Alyssa Conley, who ran a personal best of 23.00 at the longer distance in Lucerne last weekend, believes she can go faster in Durban.
“Actually I was only entered for 200 but decided to do the 100m B race as well but the weather for the 100m was eight degrees Celsius!’ she said.
‘For the 200m it was 13 deg so also very cold.
“Running into a 1.4m/sec head wind and with the cold conditions I’m happy with 23 flat.
‘So I think I’m on the right track for African champs if all goes well and I stay healthy, God willing,I’m still positive I can get my sub-23.”
Kenya’s team is missing a number of obvious star names – and it also missed its scheduled flight to Durban due to “transfer logistics”.
But head coach David Kitum is optimistic that the 60-strong squad will come home with plentiful medals in the middle and long distances.
"This team is strong and nobody should think of it as second string,” said Kitum.
“The focus to qualify for the Olympics will add fire in their desire to excel.”
Athletics Kenya president Jackson Tuwei said the team has been well prepared and urged them to go beyond the expectations and achieve faster timings as an incentive to secure Olympic qualification.
Timothy Cheruyiot is currently fourth in this year’s 1500m world rankings with a best of 3:33.61.
Abraham Kibiwott is the third-ranked 3000m steeplechaser this season with *:09.25 behind absent colleagues Conseslus Kipruto and Jairus Birech.
Wilfred Kimitei is their top-ranked 10,000m runner at the Championshps - currently 40th best this year.
Lydia Rotich is 19th on the 2016 lists for the women’s 3000m steeplechase.