Simbine: not just a one hit wonder

DETERMINED: Akani Simbine, the Tembisa local who won the 100m sprint in Doha a week ago, wants athletics to be as prominent as other sports. Picture: GALLO IMAGES

Akani Simbine was born on September 21, 1993 in Tembisa is a South African athlete, known for his achievements in international races, including his participation at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

He lives in Pretoria and studies information science at the University of Pretoria.

Simbine first shot into prominence in 2012 when he broke the South African junior 100m record with a time of 10.19 at the Zone VI Games in Lusaka, his third sprint season.

In 2014, he took another huge step in his career when he set the second fastest 100m time by a South African with 10.02 at the national championships in Pretoria and later he made the 100m final at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, finishing fifth in the 200m final. But it was in 2015 when Simbine made his mark on the international stage, beginning with his first sub 10 sec in Velenje, Slovenia, and later clocking 9.97 sec in completely still conditions winning the gold at the World Students Games in Gwangju-Korea. He describes himself as a very humble, hard working athlete, who tries to use the talent bestowed upon him to the best of his ability. “I’d like to be an inspiration to others, to teach them that no matter what happens, they must persist to achieve their goals,” Simbine said.

Simbine wants to win medals at major championships, and be known as one of the fastest, if not the fastest, guys in the world.

He wants to help make athletics one of the most popular sports in South Africa, taking it to the same level as football, rugby and cricket. He has always looked up to Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell, who he outran two weeks ago, and admires world champion Usain Bolt.
SA athletics still has long journey to earn local and global recognition, but Simbine has put country on map
AKANI Simbine could walk right into the busy intersection in Tembisa at peak hour and many people would not recognise him.

It’s not the baseball cap and black T-shirt he wore when he announced his sponsorship with car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz this week which would no doubt help him go incognito.

It’s rather the sad depths of indictment that the country’s athletics have plunged into following recent years that the man, who obliterated the world’s elite sprinters in the 100m dash in Doha a week ago, could go almost completely unnoticed.

“I do hang out in the township and yes, not too many people recognise me from the athletics events,” Simbine said.

“I’m just an ordinary guy. I guess the athletics events aren’t as big as the other sports in the country.”

Just like boxing, the country’s interest in athletics has waned in recent years and it wasn’t until the emergence of the likes of world champions Caster Semenya and Wayde van Niekerk that many sat up and took notice of the talent from these shores shining on international stages.

With his achievements in the Diamond League race in Doha, Simbine has not only reflected his personal prowess on the track, but to some extent, the rebirth of South African sprinting.

And it may not be long, though, before he gets hounded for selfies on the streets, as he continues to break boundaries in his quest to claim Usain Bolt’s soon to be vacant spot at the top of the sprint ladder.

“We always tried to tell the world that South Africa is a sprinting nation and not only about marathon runners,” Simbine said.

“Traditionally, we have had a long list of talented marathon runners. But we are now showing that there are sprinters, too. It’s me, Anaso (Jobodwana), Wayde (Van Niekerk), Gift Leotlela, Clarence Munyai and the others on the rise.

“We are changing the world’s view of South African athletics. These are not the guys who go to the US or train in Europe to win international races. But actually guys who stay here and train here.

“You don’t have to go to the US to be a world champion.”

Not too long ago, Simbine led a successful campaign to generate interest in the South African Senior Athletics Championships in Potchefstroom, using social media to get the masses to the North West town for a weekend of athletics.

“It’s championship week!!! #fillupPotch is finally here. I hope you all are coming through to be part of history,” a tweet of Simbine’s read.

This week, the 23-year-old Tuks athlete announced his biggest ever personal sponsorship.

The announcement has been somewhat of a watershed moment, as big corporate South African companies have been reluctant to invest in athletics, mainly due to the lack of interest in the sport from the public.

“I’m glad Mercedes-Benz have come on board. Having brands back you actually makes other brands ask themselves if they (Mercedes) are backing him, why can’t we back him as well’,” Simbine said.

“It has changed my life, made a whole lot of things easier but at the same time a little bit more difficult. It is more expectations. You have to deliver at the end of the day.

“What the current generation has done for the young guys is really a great thing because blue chip companies are now looking into the potential of young guys who could actually run faster.

“They say ‘let’s go with him because when he peaks he could become something great’.

“It’s a point where people see athletics where we want it to be. It also keeps me motivated to do better as I have these people, big corporates, believing me.

“I need to keep pushing myself to make them and myself proud and also attract more guys to join in on the journey and on the bigger goal and dream.”

Four years ago, however, Simbine was an ordinary lad on the track.

The breakthrough came when he broke the South African Junior Championships record with an astonishing 10.19 sec win.

It catapulted him onto the continental stage as he went on to win the Zone 12 Africa Games in Zambia in 2011. “Before then I was just an ordinary athlete who could run a decent race. But after that race, I started believing in myself.

“For me it all started in school at Norkem Park High. I wasn’t the fastest guy and was actually doing very well in football. I’ve always loved football. Athletics wasn’t as big then.

“It’s actually amazing to see how far it has come in the last few years. At 16, my high school principal, Mr Coetzee, forced me to take up athletics on a full-time basis.

“I wasn’t running that fast, but he found me a coach in Germiston, who gave me the whole lecture about how in athletics you have more control, whereas in soccer it’s often about who you know to get far.

“I did both at the same time, but it came to a point where my mum told me to choose between the two as I couldn’t do both. I always look back at Mr Coetzee’s decision with happiness.”

The young lad had caught the eye and it wasn’t long before manager Peet van Zyl came knocking. “He looked after me to make sure I grew my potential,” Simbine said.

“I soon got my Adidas contract and later Panasonic came on board. Next month I’ll be competing in the Adidas Boost Boston Games against Yohan Blake. Wayde will be competing there as well. It’s a blessing.”

Describing himself as “chilled” but disciplined, Simbine grew up in Tembisa. He has since moved to Kempton Park.

“I support Chelsea and Kaizer Chiefs. My favourite players are David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane. They’ve both retired but they were great players.

“I play Playstation. Haha. I find it’s a good way to relax and let go a bit. Fifa is my favourite game. I also like watching TV series.

I like spaghetti and mince. I don’t really follow a diet but I don’t eat takeouts, only home-cooked food. I usually eat at the High Performance Centre canteen. They’ve got a lot of options.”

“I’ve just completed my university degree and will be graduating in September.”

Simbine has been christened the local king of speed after he clocked 9.93 in the 100m sprint.

The Rio Olympic finalist recorded his personal best (9.89) and he clocked 9.99 at the Diamond League in Doha.

At the Athletics Gauteng North League meeting in March, he won the 200m in a personal best of 19.95.

His performance in the shorter sprint was 0.04 outside his own national senior record, but he set the fastest time ever run in South Africa and joined the exclusive club of the world’s sub 10/20-second doubles, which includes Ato Bolton and America’s Shawn Crawford and Justin Gatlin.

In his Olympics debut last year, the 23-year-old Simbine finished with a time of 9.94, just a few milli seconds shy of winner Usain Bolt and second-placed Justin Gatlin.

He “bliksemmed” former 100m champions Justin Gatlin and Jamaican Asafa Powell as well as elite Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse. Running into a headwind of 1.2m per second, Simbine was well in front of the rest to finish in the time of 9.99, completing another sub-10 victory.

His victory in Doha changed his image in world athletics and now he will have the spotlight firmly on him, while raising the level of expectation for his European season.

But he has insisted that doesn’t change anything for him.

“I always say people’s expectations aren’t as great as the expectation I have on myself.

“Yes, there’s more pressure and expectation from people, but I think I can live with those expectations. I don’t let it change what I’m aiming for on the track. I come to the track with a mission and that is to win the race.

“If I’m going to let what everybody says or the external affect me, then I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

“I’ll be losing on the track instead of focusing on what I’m supposed to be doing.”

He is eyeing the spot of world champion Usain Bolt, who is set to retire at the end of the year.

“It’s an opportunity with Bolt going out and I say I am here to take the spot.

“I already put my hand up for that spot. I believe in myself, I believe in my talent and I believe in the team around it.

“I can back myself up when I get to the track and I can face big names and make sure I come out on top.”

Also targeting the glorious spot are some of the fastest speedsters in the world, including Gatlin, De Grasse, Blake and Powell.

The South Africa sprinter is unfazed and has vowed to punch above his weight against the podium finishers.

“A lot of the guys that will be left in the sport will try to take that spot. We have three guys that were in the final that will be competing in probably the next two or three Olympics,” Simbine said.

“It’s probably going to be the three of us going up against each other all the time and against those other two guys, I want to come out on top.

“I took down pretty big names in the sport (in Doha) and I think I am on the right track to where I want to be at the end of the year.

“I’ve consistently run under 10 seconds. I have won my first Diamond League, I have become the first South African to win a 100m Diamond League and I want to continue with that.”

Yesterday he left for Europe where he has three races lined up, starting with his camp in Gemona in Italy.

It has become a part of his life and he has no qualms about the busy schedule, which also include studies.

“I’ve set the goals that I want to achieve by the end of the year and I’m well on my way with that.

“I just want to continue with that and I want to improve in the 200m and go to the World Champs and come back with a medal.

“Now, I actually have the confidence, not just saying the words, I have the confidence in myself and the speed and the training.”

In his next two races he will line up against Blake on June 4 and world sprint king Bolt in Jamaica six days later.

“It’s two more opportunities for me to lay down the marker and get people believing I’m not just a one hit wonder.”

Simbine is no longer the “guy next door” and he is due the recognition he truly deserves.

It may well come with success at the IAAF World Championships in London in August, where he will be one of the favourites for a podium finish.