SA 400m champion Lythe Pillay remains humble ahead of second Olympics appearance

SA 400m champion Lythe Pillay remains humble ahead of second Olympics appearance
Lythe Pillay of South Africa in action in the Men’s 400m heats at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 2023, Hungary. 20 August 20 2023. (Photo: Anton Geyser/Gallo Images)

Lythe Pillay has had a great build-up to the Paris Olympics, including winning the SA national title in the 400m, and playing a pivotal part to aid his country’s relay qualification in the same distance. 

Lythe Pillay may be the reigning South African 400m champion after dethroning 2023 winner Wayde van Niekerk at the SA Championships this April. Nevertheless, after booking a spot at the Olympic Games with that victory, the rising runner is keeping his feet firmly grounded.

Gauteng-based Pillay ran a personal best time of 44.31 seconds to secure the national title ahead of relay teammates Zakithi Nene and Gardeo Isaacs. As a result, he qualified for the individual 400m event in Paris.

The 21-year-old’s time also made him the second-fastest South African in the distance, trailing only the different times set by the world and Olympic record holder in the event, Van Niekerk.

“I’m excited. Elated. At the same time, I’m very conscious of reminding myself to stay grounded. To stay locked in and not to become complacent or lose track of the main goal through all the excitement and hype generated by everything [I’ve achieved so far],” Pillay told Daily Maverick.

Lythe Pillay in the heats of the mens 400m at the 2021 World Athletics U20 Championships at Kasarani International Stadium, Nairobi, Kenya. 18 August 2021. (Photo: Roger Sedres/Gallo Images)

“The main goal is to remain consistent. I’ve been performing well so far. If I can just maintain that and then be able to potentially surpass it, then I would have ticked all the boxes that I have for myself in terms of expectations for the Olympics,” he stated.

Pillay — who is also a former world junior champion after winning the title in Colombia two years ago — was speaking to Daily Maverick following the announcement by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) that he was part of the first group of athletes that will represent the country in France.

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA sprinters finish strongly at World Relays to qualify for Olympics

The runner also played a pivotal part as South Africa’s 400m relay side booked their ticket to Paris, in addition to his individual appearance.

Pillay produced a stellar performance as the anchor to lead his team to a first senior medal at a major global championship since 2017, as they finished second behind Botswana at the World Relays in Bahamas a couple of weeks ago.

Lythe Pillay

South Africa’s Lythe Pillay in action during the 4X400 metres mixed relay at the World Athletics Relays, Nassau, Bahamas. 5 May 2024. (Photo: Reuters/Dante Carrer)

The South African team includes Van Niekerk, former 400m national champion Nene, as well as Isaacs and Antonie Nortje.

Pillay believes the healthy individual competition between him and his teammates over the last few years will be an undeniable positive for South Africa in Paris.

“We’ve all been racing each other for a long time. Through that we push each other to run faster,” Pillay said to Daily Maverick.

“Now being able to combine that same effort into one team is a very exciting twist. The faster one person runs, the faster the rest are forced to run. Through doing that, we end up producing a very strong team when we come together.”

Long road

An accounting student at the University of Johannesburg, Pillay’s adoration for athletics was first planted at Arbor Primary School in Benoni. Though he dabbled in a number of sports during his time there, running was what he excelled in.

“I made the SA Championships for the first time when I was in grade seven. That’s when my mom and I realised that this is something I’m really passionate about. We started taking it more seriously in terms of outsourcing coaching,” Pillay stated.

“In grade eight I went to the SA Championships again. A year later I went to my first intercontinental championship. From there everything pretty much skyrocketed and opened up,” he recalled.

His achievements as a scholar at King Edward VII School include being a three-time South African junior champion in the 400m. He was also victorious at the African Youth Champs in 2019.

He cites Usain Bolt, Akani Simbine and Van Niekerk as some of the athletes that he draws inspiration from. He only had great things to say about what he’s learnt from the latter, in particular.

Lythe Pillay

Lythe Pillay at the start of the mens 400m final during the 2021 World Athletics U20 Championships at Kasarani International Stadium in Nairobi, Kenya. 21 August 2021. (Photo: Roger Sedres/Gallo Images)

“He’s a veteran in the sport. He can sometimes be underappreciated. Most people know him for being the world record holder, but not for the level of class he displays when he runs,” Pillay said of Van Niekerk.

“We saw it in the relay. The way he took charge of our team, not just as someone who is our senior, but someone who is one of us…

“Taking charge, guiding us, leading us. Also bringing himself down to our plane. That’s what I admired about him most in that moment. He leads by example.”

As he heads to his second Games after debuting as a teenager with the relay team in Tokyo three years ago, Pillay is confident in his abilities and the progress he has made since then.

However, he is also realistic about the fact that he will be facing extremely tough competition when he debuts in the individual 400m relay race at the Olympics.

“Whatever happens is a bonus for me. I approach the Olympics and I approach my season with a long-term goal in mind,” Pillay said.

“As much as the Paris Olympics are now, I still have a long career ahead of me. Everything I do now is just a step towards what I’m going to achieve later on. But to already be in this position is a big honour.” DM 


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Stephen Paul says:

    It is a great shame that after his extraordinary record breaking run Wayde van Niekerk picked up a long term injury which has presumably prevented him from reaching or even coming close to his previous great achievement. Unless he can still make a come-back it seems he will be forever known as a one race wonder.

  • Enver Klein says:

    World record holder for 400m and 300m. The 4th man to break 20 seconds for 200m and 44 seconds for 400m. Very unfair to refer to him as a “one race number”. His “downfall” was agreeing to play touch rugby at Newlands.

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