31 August 2004
South Africa added two more silvers to its medal tally as the Athens Olympics concluded, to finish with six medals in all, an improvement of one over Sydney in 2004.
In the last three days of competition Hestrie Cloete and Mbulaeni Mulaudzi ended second in the high jump and 800 metres respectively. Given the two athletes’ form going into the competition, the first result was a minor disappointment, the second a major triumph.
Cloete outclassed on the night
Cloete came up against Yelena Slesarenko who, coming into the competition, was tied with her for the highest clearance in the world in 2004 of 2.04 metres.
The South African, though, entered the event with all the qualifications to make her the gold medal favourite. She was the IAAF’s female athlete of the year in 2003. She was also unbeaten in Golden League competitions in 2004.
Both jumpers started out beautifully, clearing on their first six attempts, from 1.89 metres all the way through to 2.02 metres. Cloete then experienced her first failure at 2.04 metres. Slesarenko immediately put the pressure on with a comfortable clearance.
Cloete lined up her next jump with determination etched on your face. She charged hard at the bar, but got her run-up wrong and had to duck under the bar, costing her a jump and leaving her with only one more attempt.
The two-time world champion decided to move the bar up by two centimetres for her final jump to 2.06 metres, equal to her lifetime best. It was a brave decision, but it didn’t come off as Cloete again failed to clear.
Ironically, when Slesarenko went over first time at 2.06 metres she did what Cloete had done when she won the World Championships in 2003 – first-time clearances all the way to 2.06 metres.
Mulaudzi puts troubles behind him
Mbulaeni Mulaudzi’s silver in the 800 metres came as something of a surprise, despite the fact that for most of 2004 he was ranked number one in the world. He had struggled with illness and injury in the lead-up to the Athens Games, and as a result his form was not what it might have been.
Nonetheless, he booked his place in the final with two decent runs in the heats and semi-finals. Hezekiel Sepeng, the silver medal winner in the fastest Olympic 800 metres final in history in Atlanta in 1996, also went through as the second of the fastest losers.
In the final Mulaudzi put all his trials and tribulations behind him to move up one position from the third place he had achieved at the World Championships in Paris last year to capture silver.
Russia’s Yuri Borzakovskiy snatched gold in 1:44.45, while Mulaudzi out-kicked world record holder Wilson Kipketer to finish second in 1:44.61 to the 1:44.65 of the great Dane. Sepeng finished sixth.
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Other South African competitors were less successful. The men’s 4x400m relay failed to finish in the heats for the final after a botched baton change.
Arnaud Malherbe, a member of the quartet, reckoned fellow team member Hendrick Mokganyetsi said the baton was knocked out of his hand by a Russian athlete at the first handover. Mokganyetsi ran back to pick the baton up, but then decided not to continue as the rest of the teams had already roared on by.
Bright future for Sandler
16-year old Stephanie Sandler failed to qualify for the all-round competition of the rhythmic gymnastics competition. However, her showing of twenty-second overall was more than decent, especially considering her young age. Sandler still has plenty of time to improve, develop, and learn, and better things can be expected of her in the future.
Hockey: three greats retire
South Africa’s women’s hockey team ended their tournament on a high, edging out Spain 4-3 in extra time to finish in ninth place. The final placing was a disappointment because the side failed to play to its potential in some games. That was emphasised when Germany won gold against the Netherlands; earlier in the competition South Africa had outclassed the Germans 3-0.
The South African men’s team finished tenth after another tough loss, as had been the case throughout much of the tournament. Facing Great Britain, Craig Jackson and company went one goal down in the forty-third minute, but just two minutes later Greg Nicol leveled the scores at one-all.
Neither team was able to break the impasse. With that, the match ultimately moved into penalty strokes and Great Britain emerged 4-3 winners from the spot.
The match also brought to an end the careers of three of South Africa’s greatest hockey players ever. Gregg Clark retired as the country’s most capped player of all time, having reached the 250-Test mark in Athens.
Captain, Craig Jackson, who reached 200 caps at the Olympics, also called it a day, while Greg Nicol, too, decided to call it quits after an extraordinary career. In 200 matches he scored almost 250 goals, a record good enough to qualify him as one of the all-time greats.
Fighters: another day
Duncan Mahlangu failed to move beyond the preliminary round of the 68-kilogram category in the Taekwondo competition, going down to Gabriel Sagustume of Guatemala. He could have had another opportunity to move on had Sagastume won his next bout, but when he lost Mahlangu’s Olympic competition was over.
Wrestler Shaun Williams was eliminated when he suffered defeats to the other two men in his 55-kilogram elimination pool. Bulgaria’s Velikov Radoslav easily beat the South African 13-2, but it was tight against China’s Zhengyu Li, who claimed a 5-4 victory. Interestingly, Li went on to defeat Radoslav.
Finally, the marathon
The final event of the Olympics, as is traditional, was the marathon, run over a hilly course. Early on South Africa’s trio of Hendrick Ramaala, Ian Syster, and Gert Thys looked strong, running up at the front of the race and setting the pace.
However, that strong running signaled only a false dawn as both Syster and Ramaala fell out, with Thys going on to finish in sixteenth place.
SA’s Olympic medal winners
Men’s 4x100m freestyle relay team (Roland Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend, Ryk Neethling) in a world record 3:13.17
Hestrie Cloete – women’s high jump, 2.02 metres
Mbulaeni Mulaudzi – men’s 800 metres, 1:44.61
Roland Schoeman – men’s 100 metres freestyle, 48.23
Donovan Cech / Ramon Di Clemente – men’s rowing pairs, 6:33.40
Roland Schoeman – men’s 50m freestyle, 22.02