South African Olympic Games silver medalist Caster Semenya and world 400-metre champion Wayde van Niekerk will headline the Africa Athletics Championships in coastal city Durban from Wednesday to Sunday.
In the absence of some of the continent’s stars from Kenya and Ethiopia, the success or failure of the championships, which start 44 days before the Rio Olympic Games, will largely depend on the host nation’s large contingent.
Kenya have sent a weakened team to the championships due to their national Olympics trials being held from June 30.
Nigeria’s aim of reclaiming the continental title they conceded to South Africa in Morocco two years ago has been dealt a blow due to a lack of funding and visa problems.
The team was arriving in drips and drabs on Tuesday, although it was still uncertain whether star-sprinter and defending women’s 100m champion Blessing Okagbare would reach Durban in time.
Her participation would set up a battle royale with Ivorian sprint sensation Murielle Ahoure, who broke Okagbare’s African 100m record by 0.01 seconds with a time of 11.78sec this month.
Semenya will be the firm favourite in her specialist 800m event, and the 1500m, while she will also feature in the 4x400m relay team.
“This is my first African Championships and for me it is more about having fun on my home ground and entertaining my people and doing what I do best,” Semenya said on Tuesday.
“I have home ground advantage, the nerves are a bit low unlike overseas, so I am just here to have fun.”
Semenya has been the dominant female 800m athlete this year, posting a season best time of 1:56.64, and has gone unbeaten in each of her major races.
“This is part of the buildup for the Olympics and I still have the European season to finish and it is just about doing what you love,” she said.
“The main focus at the moment is just to balance my speed with my endurance, so I will focus on the 1500m and the 800m while I will be racing in the 4x400m to help the girls qualify for the Olympics.”
African record-holder Van Niekerk will feature in a half-lap sprint instead of his specialist event, although he has been entered for the 4x400m relay.
Van Niekerk will line up against former African record-holder Isaac Makwala of Botswana, and defending 100-200m champion Wilfred Koffi of the Ivory Coast.
Confederation of African Athletics president Hamad Kalkaba said the increase in entrants for the continental showpiece demonstrated the growth in interest in the sport.
“You can see athletics is growing in Africa. We are making an effort to promote the sport on the continent and we are sure Durban will be one of the best championships,” he said.