Sunday, 21 August 2016

Forget the tracksuits, count the medals: South Africa celebrate Rio revival

When your president rouses himself on a Sunday to congratulate a South African sports team, you know you've done okay.

As in all sports, you can only judge a team by its results. And on that basis, South Africa’s Olympians at Rio 2016 have to be given a massive pat on the back. Even Jacob Zuma said they were "outstanding" on Sunday morning as the sporting carnival drew to a close.

Sure, we can pick out the weaknesses. The bizarre retro tracksuits, those who finished out of the top 50 in their events, the lack of ANY relay teams and the non-travelling hockey teams.

But history will reflect South Africa’s most successful Olympics since re-introduction in 1992. The target of 10 medals was met. And two glittering gold medals will return to these shores.

The golden moment of a fascinating week of athletics has to go to Wayde van Niekerk. He shattered Michael Johnson’s apparently indomitable world record over 400m and is now a household name around the globe.

Caster Semenya, tweeting bizarre pre-race assertions on a now-verified twitter account, did EXACTLY what she promised, winning the women’s 800m by an even greater margin than Wayde.

Shrugging off the approaching storm, Semenya said: "It's just fantastic. Thanks to team, my physios, my coach, my training partners, my wife and my family. Great job. If it wasn't for them I wouldn't be here today."

The question is: will Caster's gold lead to a long-lasting change in attitudes to same-sex marriage among the traditionally conservative sporting fraternity? Let's hope so.

There's more, much more. Henri Schoeman’s surprise bronze in the triathlon - he finished just ahead of compatriot and medal favourite Richard Murray in fourth - was a major boost, Chad Le Clos became our most decorated Olympian by adding two further silvers in the pool, and Sunette Viljoen speared silver too with her opening throw.

Once more, South Africa emerges as an African Olympian giant, second only to Kenya’s middle-distance kings in the medals table. Nigeria, with a population five times ours, only managed a single medal, bronze in the football.

Yes, there were controversies. But the greatest of those were unifying tales, great stories that drew the nation together.

Luvo Manyango’s dramatic silver medal in the long-jump came despite drug addiction and a doping ban. Viljoen’s javelin tore through the heart when we read how her brother struck her twice when she came out as a homosexual.

And of course, Caster - ironically attempting to usurp the androgynous Jarmila Kratochvilova’s 1983 world record - sailed through the storm over her gender with aplomb. Soon, given a pace-maker, will we see her become the fastest woman ever over two laps.

We can talk of medals and success - Sports Minister Mbalula Fikile will make sure of that - despite a feeling in the gut that many of our athletes succeeded DESPITE the efforts of SASCOC not BECAUSE of the Tubby Reddy brigade.

But I’ll celebrate the 2016 Olympics in Rio because it brought the nation together. Some tried to talk about race, others gave up after both South African teams went out early in the football tournament.

For the TRUTH about 2016, you had to be on the social networks in the early hours of Sunday morning as Caster prepared to deliver the gold I guaranteed all week on eTV Sunrise.

The Rainbow Nation stayed awake, as many had for a fortnight of Brazilian brilliance. And we celebrated together as one when Mokgadi made a mockery of an 800m field shorn of Russians.

And who knows, when the dust settles, the woman that beat her in to the silver medal position at London 2012, Mariya Savinova, may  yet be deprived of her ill-gotten gold. And we’ll discover that “our Caster” did what Mo Farah and Usain Bolt did: defended her title.

But for now, let’s celebrate. With Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin on the way out, Wayde van Niekerk, Anasa Jobodwzne and Akani Simbine could be set for years of sprinting success for South Africa.

Building on success has never been a great South African sporting trait. This time, the opportunity should not be missed.

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