Monday, 30 July 2012

When London 2012 belonged to South Africa: and where the next medal will come from


Making his point: Cameron van der Burgh after winning Africa's first gold

SPINE-TINGLING moments are rare for South African Olympians. But for an all-too-brief 15 minutes on Sunday night, London 2012 belonged to the Rainbow Nation.
After two days of agony which saw cycling road race contenders Daryll Impey and Asleigh Moolman finish empty-handed and the women’s footballers Banyana Banyana knocked-out after defeats against Sweden and Japan, the promised land of 12 medals looked unobtainable.
Charl Crous (men’s 100m backstroke) and Wendy Trott (women’s 400m freestyle) finished last in their heats and when our much-hyped hockey girls were thumped 7-1 by Argentina, the social networks were abuzz with complaints from patriotic South Africans watching the games of the 30th Olympiad.
My reply was simply to point the twittering cynics towards a better time, a better place. Specifically 9.11pm at the sparkling new Aqua Centre in Olympic Park.
The night before, Van der Burgh left defending Beijing champion Kosuke Kitajima of Japan in his wake with an Olympic record 58.83secs in the 100m breaststroke semi-final. He went to London with the world’s fifth-fastest time but went in to the final as the fastest qualifier.
There was never any doubt that Van der Burgh – allegedly stronger over the non-Olympic 50m than he is over two lengths – would be South Africa’s first medallist in London. And there was no doubt he would reach the turn at the front of the field.
The surprises came with his enduring pace over the final length, the ease with which he won gold, and that world record finishing time of 58.46secs which left a stunned favourite Kitajima 1.33secs behind in fifth place with Australia’s Christian Sprenger taking silver and Brendan Hansen of the US in third.
The commentator screamed: “Van der Burgh is tiring, he’s a one-length specialist” but the truth was the 24-year-old had simply blown the rest of the world away and Australia’s Brenton Rickard was left trailing in sixth-place as his global mark was shattered by 0.12secs.
Afterwards the Crawford College old boy gasped: “The world record doesn’t matter. Just to be an Olympian, an Olympic champion, puts you in a club which nobody can take away from you.”
The beauty of Van der Burgh’s triumph lies in the fact that, unlike so many other South African swimmers, he is home-schooled. Cameron does his training at the University of Pretoria, as part of an academy which also saw AmaTuks graduate to the Premier Soccer League last season as well as producing top class tennis players and golfers.
In less than a minute, Cameron had won Africa’s first medal and improved on the entire South African medal haul from Beijing four years ago, where long-jumper Khotso Mokoena won a single silver in a bleak Chinese fortnight.
For the first time in eight years, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAFrika boomed out across an Olympic venue, and Van Der Burgh could barely keep his composure, taking huge breaths to keep the tears from overwhelming him.
Holding his emotions in check, he grinned: “I chose just the right time to swim the perfect race. That’s what I’ll be able to tell my children.”
Van der Burgh, who started swimming seriously at 11, confesses: “I love what I do and never feel like I’m actually working. Playing in the pool all day isn’t so bad.”
And now for further medals – 11 of them, if Sascoc are to maintain their optimistic schedule in London.
Cameron’s fellow swimmer Chad Le Clos, the 20-year-old from Durban, has chances after finishing an impressive fifth in the 400m individual medley behind American giant Ryan Lochte.
But even if Le Clos misses out in his favourite 200m butterfly tonight or the 200m medley on Friday, there’s always the men’s lightweight four in the rowing at Eton Dorney on Thursday where Lawrence Ndlovu, John Smith, Matthew Brittain and James Thomson are hoping to build on their second-place finish at the World Cup in Lucerne earlier this year.
But for real bullion, we need only look to today’s triathlon in the London docklands for medal-hungry South Africans.
That’s where South Africa have real medal hopes, centring on Richard Murray, the 23-year-old from Cape Town, who won the swim-cycle-run World Cup event in Hamburg on the Saturday before the Olympics, over-shadowed by Hashim Amla’s 311 not out and Ernie Els’ Open triumph.
By the time the athletics starts – with javelin thrower Sunette Viljoen, 800m champion Caster Semenya, Mokoena, the 4x400m men’s relay and 400m hurdler LJ Van Zyl all medal contenders – South Africa may well have a few more medals in the bag before Burry Stander’s mountain biking on the final Sunday of London 2012.
And as I write this column remember this: South Africa are currently leading hosts Great Britain in the medals table – Lewis Hamilton was the only British winner of the weekend. And his Grand Prix triumph came a distant 1 500km away in Hungary.

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