Saturday, August 11, 2012

Team South Africa at the 2012 London Olympics: a new guard emerges

Team South Africa can look back on the 2012 London Olympics with a sense of relief and optimism. After claiming just a solitary medal at the Beijing Olympics, the team managed to earn its highest medal tally since readmission. The six medals Team South Africa won were through performances of resilience and sheer talent. They also confirmed the arrival of a new generation of South African athletes who have the potential to be dominant in their respective sports.

The dismal performance of the South African team at the Beijing Olympics was hugely disappointing. In a team which featured world champions, world record holders, and leading performers in 2008, it was difficult to understand how the team returned with just one medal. But as the years progressed, there was optimism that South Africa would fare much better at the London Olympics for the following reasons:
  • After the Beijing Olympics, there was a major overhaul in the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc). The new leadership emphasised new measures to ensure Team South Africa performs better in future Olympic Games;
  • South African teams performed well in events such as the 2009 Athletics World Championships;
  • A new generation of world class South African sportsmen and women emerged
Team South Africa was quite short of its target of winning 12 medals at the London Olympics. But those who won medals should raise optimism of the potential of South African athletes at the Olympics. Natural talent and resilience were not in short supply for these medal winners.

Cameron van der Burgh and Chad le Clos. Picture: Supplied

Cameron van der Burgh (Gold - swimming: 100m men's breastroke WR)
After a consistent past four years, Cameron van der Burgh's crowning moment came when he broke the world record to claim gold in the 100 metres men's breastroke event. Van der Burgh initially made inroads in Short Course swimming events, where he has broken the world record three times. He subsequently began enjoying success in Long Course swimming, and was a favourite to claim gold at the Olympics.

Van der Burgh is a combination of a world class athlete who displays resilience and a natural flair to his game. Since participating and winning a bronze at the 2007 World Swimming Championships, he has progressed as a swimmer, becoming a force in both 50 and 100 metre breastroke events. At 24 years of age, he might possibly be past his peak when the Rio Olympics arrive in 2016. But van der Burgh started the changing of the guard in South African Olympic sport, with his emergence as a world class swimmer.

Chad le Clos (Gold - swimming: 200m men's butterfly & Silver - 100m)
A more recent phenomenon in the world of swimming, Chad le Clos established himself as a leading swimmer at the London Olympics. Famously beating the legendary Michael Phelps to claim gold in the 200 metres butterfly event at the Games, one could argue that he is set to dominate this event in future. Since Phelps has now retired from competitive swimming, 20 year old le Clos has the opportunity to build on from his promise and enjoy more silverwear and possibly break world records.

Le Clos knows how to win medals. A prolific record at junior level, he caught the attention of the swimming world with his performances at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Winning two individual gold medals and five medals altogether, he was one of the most decorated swimmers at the games.

Le Clos is also very competitive in the individual medley events. Perhaps as he grows as a leading swimmer, we might see him compete in more individual events at the Rio Olympics. Unlike van der Burgh, le Clos has yet to reach the peak age of a swimmer. He has been touted as the next big swimmer in South Africa, and his performances at the London Games have justified this.

The South African lightweight men's four (LM4-) rowing team (Gold)
Picture: Supplied
Team South Africa rowers James Thompson, John Smith, Matthew Brittain and Sizwe Ndlovu  were the epitome of resilience in their race to win gold at the London Olympics. In the final 500 metres of their winning race, the team moved from fourth position to claim gold. They rowed past the world's leading teams Denmark, Great Britain and Australia, to pull off an unlikely victory.

The team has enjoyed a good 2012, where they have only been beaten once, by China in the World Cup Regatta. They headed to the Olympics quietly confident of success. It says much about this team that despite their good form beforehand, their Olympic success is considered to be a surprise.

South Africa is not new in pulling off surprises in rowing at the Olympics. In the 2004 Athens Olympics, Donovan Cech and Ramon di Clemente won bronze in the Men's Coxless Pairs (M2-) in a highly competitive race. Considering the success of the rowing team in the London Olympics, there is potential for South Africa to do well in the event in future Games. Some of South Africa's leading schools and universities produce strong rowers and rowing teams. Most of South Africa's Olympic medallist rowers are products of them.     

Bridgitte Hartley (Bronze - K1: 500m)
Picture: Supplied
At the age of 29, Hartley is one of the oldest athletes amongst South Africa's London Olympic medallists. Her success at the sprint canoe event is inspirational. She has also shared similar sentiments, as she has traveled a tough road to becoming an Olympic medallist. 

After being eliminated in the semi-finals of the Beijing Olympics pairs event, Hartley came back a more hardened and determined canoeist at this year's Olympics. Her emotions upon receiving her bronze medal echoed the relief and the tricky road she has been on in the sport. 

Hartley has stated her wish for South African canoeing to receive more support in terms of infrastructure and finances. Like rowing, there could be more potential medallists waiting in the wings in South African canoeing, but they may be in need of a boost from this kind of support. 

Caster Semenya (Silver - athletics: 800m)

Picture: Supplied
The flag bearer of a country at an Olympic Games Opening Ceremony is considered to be the best or most respected athlete of that particular team. Twenty one year old Semenya was South Africa's flag bearer in London, and this says a lot about the high regard in which she is held. 

Showing good form in the qualifying rounds of the women's 800 metres, South Africans expected Semenya to win gold in the finals. But despite getting her tactics wrong, she managed to pass seven athletes in the final lap of the race to win a silver medal.

Amongst her competitors, she managed to get the loudest cheers from the crowd before her finals race and in the proceeding medal presentation ceremony. On the back of her performances at the London Olympics, she has gone from having the sympathy and ridicule of athletics supporters and fellow athletes, to making them remember the fine athlete she is. She is now embraced for her performances on the athletics track, and not for events which clouded her world championship winning performance in 2009. Considering the way in which she ran her final race at the London Olympics, she showed that she has not reached her potential. One can expect greater things from Semenya. 
Carelessly described as a "controversial" athlete by a commentator before her race at the Olympic finals, Semenya is likely to live with the cloud of her ill-treatment in 2009. But her performances on the track, which can evidently improve even more, can catapult her to more success in future Olympic Games and elevate her to the status of an athletics 800 metres legend.   

So close, yet so far
Sacoc's aim for Team South Africa to win 12 medals may have not been satisfied, but they could have got even closer to that target. The most agonising miss for Team South Africa in terms of medals is javelin thrower Sunette Viljoen's fourth place finish in the women's javelin finals. A bronze medallist at the 2011 Athletics World Championships and a two-time Commonwealth Games champion, she was in good enough form to warrant a medal at the London Games. But a bad day at the office saw her slip down the standings after beginning the javelin finals with a good throw. 

There was also a bad day for South Africa's only medallist at the Beijing Olympics. Khotso Mokoena was far from his best when he failed to get close to a medal position in the long jump finals. He has spoken of his intent to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics, but time will tell if he can return to his best. One does not wish the same fate for him as was experienced by 32 year old former world 800 metres champion Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, who failed to qualify for the London Olympics. 

South Africa should celebrate the success of its London Olympic medallists. The performances of Team South Africa in London have been a major improvement from their previous Olympic campaigns. But momentum should not be lost. There is a lot of potential in South African sport, and more work needs to be done to make Sascoc's medal aims in future Olympics become a reality.

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