From humble beginnings, Akani Simbine has built himself into one of the world's fastest men, one of the many who has helped South Africa become a sprint superpower. After getting a taste for gold, he now wants more.

Speed – is it the result of a genetic gift, or just plain old hard graft? Are the world’s fastest humans born or made?

Wherever you stand on the debate, it’s clear that nature needs a whole lot of nurturing before it can reach full bloom, something Akani Simbine knows all too well.

The 24-year-old South African may be a 9.8-second man, an Olympic finalist, a Commonwealth champion, but whatever talent was within him took some time to bubble to the surface.

“I was always fast, but I was never the fastest,” he recalls. “I was a pretty average kid but things started happening as I got older – I got faster and faster and faster.”

Growing up in Johannesburg, Simbine didn’t have a whole lot of sprint stars to idolise among his countrymen – unlike the kids of today – but his mother, Elsie, had been a sprinter herself back in the day. Score one for nature.

“She was known to be very fast but she didn’t get the chance to run in college,” says Simbine. “She had to go and study.”

But in the years to come, Elsie’s fingerprint would eventually end up on a world-class athlete.

Athletics was never Akani’s first love – the youngster was far more enamoured by football, where his pace and skill made him a troubling sight for any leaden-footed defenders in the local league. But in 2010, the year South Africa hosted the World Cup, Elsie somehow convinced her son that he would be better off abandoning the sport.

“She said that in football, sometimes the coach won’t choose you because you’re not his favourite, but in athletics if you win, you win and no one can take that away from you,” recalls Simbine. “You have the control there.”

He was 16 at the time, but no matter how rebellious teenagers are at that age, deep down they know that mum knows best. And how right she was.

Akani Simbine prevails in Doha (Hasse Sjogren/Jiro Mochizuki)

Going Global

Simbine clocked 10.61 that year, 10.57 the next, but it was only in 2012, at the age of 19, that he truly announced his talent to the world, ripping a South African U20 record of 10.19 in Lusaka.

That opened all kinds of doors and earned Simbine a scholarship at the University of Pretoria, where he studied information science and continued to be coached by Werner Prinsloo, whose group is based 70km away in Johannesburg.

In 2015 Simbine claimed his first international title when hammering the field at the World University Games in Gwangju, South Korea – his winning time of 9.97, run in still conditions, a South African record.

“That lifted me into another sphere, a sphere where I could win international titles and believe that I belong to athletics,” says Simbine. “It motivated me to win more and run faster.”

The following summer Simbine stayed true to his word, rocketing himself into contention for an Olympic medal in Rio when running 9.89 in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, just three weeks before the Games.

He went there with all the wide-eyed wonder you’d expect from a 23-year-old at his first Olympics, taking in the sights and gazing at the array of sports stars, wondering just how he’d come to be among them.

“It was amazing,” he says. “So many times I watched the sporting heroes on TV and it was great being around them, seeing what’s happening behind the scenes.”

He finished fifth in the men’s 100m final, running 9.94 to finish just 0.03 outside the medals – the kind of result that could leave an athlete reflecting with either pride or regret. For Simbine, it’s the former.

“Being in a final was job done for me,” he says. “Placing fifth and being so close to the medals was amazing. I found motivation in that – I needed to work harder to get closer to that medal.”

At the world champs in London last year, though, he got no closer, again finishing fifth, this time in 10.01, an agonising 0.06 outside the medals.

Fifth place was a lot less fun this time around. “I was disappointed with my performance,” he says. “I wanted to win a medal, so I had to pick myself up and train harder this year.”

Akani Simbine in the men's 100m final at the 2017 World Championships (Getty Images)

Mining Gold Down Under

During the off-season, Simbine changed his strength and conditioning coach, which he says helped him stay healthier this year, and from early in the year the destination that occupied his thoughts was Gold Coast, Australia, and the night of Monday, April 9 – the Commonwealth Games 100m final.

Simbine lined up as an underdog – nothing new there – alongside 2011 world champion Yohan Blake of Jamaica, the second fastest man in history over 100m. In the hours before he’d gone through his usual routine, pumping a steady flow of rap and hip-hop through his headphones, getting his mood and energy in the right place before he settled into his blocks, his thoughts a sea of tranquility.

“At that point, my mind is switched off,” he says. “It’s just the body running.”

The first moment he can recall is at 60 metres, the only time in the race when he allowed himself to check his surroundings. He glanced to his left, expecting to see Blake, and was greeted by the beautiful sight of emptiness – Simbine was all alone, on his way to gold, in 10.03.

“Crossing the line is a moment I’ll never forget,” he says. “Beating someone of that stature is amazing for my career.”

Rising Tide

These days, Simbine is just one of a horde of world-class South African sprinters, a nation that has developed into a superpower of speed over the last decade. But how did it happen?

“It’s the hunger,” says Simbine. “Believing that we can do it and wanting to compete on the world stage, to see ourselves as equal to the other countries, that we can do what other countries are doing and better.”

And the bad news for Simbine’s international rivals: he’s probably going to get faster.

Since graduating University last year, he has been training as a full-time athlete without any distractions to drain his time or energy. “I don’t have to rush to classes in between sessions or skip any sessions because I have a class or test,” he says. “I’m focused on being the best athlete I want to be.”

The Commonwealth gold has boosted his profile back home, and Simbine is now a household name. “A lot of people are excited for me that I came back home with the gold medal, they’re supporting and showing their love for me.”

But Simbine is modest about his achievements, although some may not think so if they saw the tattoo on his calf which is of…himself. But let him explain.

Akani Simbine's calf tattoo (Getty Images)

“I wanted to get a running man then the tattoo artist said ‘you’re a running man, why don’t you just get yourself’,” recalls Simbine. “So I said: cool.”

And that running man will be flashing down tracks at stadiums around the world this summer – the African Championships in Lagos, Nigeria will be his chief goal, but Simbine also plans to race in Ostrava and at Diamond League meetings in Rome, Paris, London and Birmingham.

First up, however, is a very different stretch of tartan – Simbine will tear down the track on Charles Street at the adidas Boost Boston Games on 20th May.

“They’re really good to interact with the fans because when we’re at meets in stadiums we don’t get to meet them as much,” says Simbine of the street meets. “It’s very important for the sport that they get to interact with us.”

Looking further ahead, I ask Simbine about his ultimate vision, and his goals are as concise as they are ambitious.

“To be Olympic champion, to be world champion,” he responds. “To be the best version of myself.”

Words: Cathal Dennehy