14 March 2007
The world’s number-one ranked 800 metres athlete, Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, and former world junior heptathlon champion Justine Robbeson, now ranked eighth in the world in the javelin, have been voted South Africa’s Athletes of 2006. The selections were made by members of SA Athletics Statisticians.
Mulaudzi enjoyed a superb season in 2006, setting Europe alight with a string of excellent performances that included defeating all the other top-ranked 800 metres runners in the world, as well as setting the fastest time of the year when he clocked 1 min 43.09 in Rieti, Italy.
Robbeson’s year was highlighted by a South African record throw of 62.80 metres at a meeting in Finland and a bronze medal at the IAAF World Cup meeting in Athens.
In the footsteps of Sepeng
Hezekiel Sepeng was the first South African athlete, after the country’s return from isolation, to really capture the public’s imagination in the 800 metres. In 1996 at the Atlanta Olympics he won silver in the event in 1:42.74 as Norway’s Vebjørn Rodal captured gold in an Olympic record 1:42.58.
Since then, though, Mulaudzi has both equalled Sepeng’s Olympic silver and bettered the rest of his achievements.
Mulaudzi was a late starter to serious athletics, only focusing his attention on the sport at the age of 17 after he had represented Northern Province (now Limpopo) in the South African National Championships.
He finished fourth in the 800 metres in 1:55 and third in the 1 500 metres in four minutes. However, he realized he wasn’t far off the achievements of the winners, and this provided him with enough encouragement to improve his training.
From that point onwards it was an upward climb for Mulaudzi as he won the national schools title in the 800 metres in 1998. In 1999 he was crowned the national junior champion, and in the same year won the African junior title in 1 min 49.13.
He continued to show improvement and a year later, in 2002, claimed silver in the 800m at the African Senior Championships. During the year he lowered his personal best time to 1:45.55 while competing in Budapest. However, he failed to crack the nod for a place in the South African team to the Sydney Olympic Games.
The following year, though, Mulaudzi was in national colours for the World Championships in Edmonton, where he finished sixth. He also lowered his personal best to 1:44.01.
Commonwealth Games gold
The next year he won gold for South Africa at the Manchester Commonwealth Games, picked up bronze at the African Championships, and further improved his personal best to 1:43.81.
After fighting through injuries early in 2003, Mulaudzi returned in good form, recording a time of 1:43.25 in Rehlingen, Germany. At the World Championships in Paris he claimed bronze. Later in the year, in Brussels, he broke through the 1:43 barrier for the first time, with a run of 1:42.89.
By that time it had become clear that Mulaudzi had overtaken Sepeng as South Africa’s premier 800 metres athlete as he beat the man he considered his idol in 13 out of 16 races.
Indoor world champ, Olympic silver
In 2004 Mulaudzi competed in indoor events in Europe, and was well rewarded when he captured gold at the World Indoor Championships in Budapest. Later in the year, in Athens, he secured silver in the Olympics.
2005 proved to be a difficult year for the South African star as he struggled with injuries and the pressure of high expectations. Matters caught up to him when he failed to qualify for the 800m finals at the World Championships in Helsinki.
Were Mulaudzi’s best days behind him? Not likely. And he proved that with his fantastic showing in 2006 as he ascended to the number one ranking in the world.
Robbeson is just 21 years of age, but she has been competing at a high level for a while, originally in the heptathlon, but now as a javelin thrower.
She chose to concentrate on the javelin, not because she didn’t “have it” as a heptathlete, but rather because it became clear that she potentially ranked as one of the world’s best javelin throwers.
Robbeson’s first taste of international success came back in 2003 when she won silver at the All Africa Games in Abuja, Nigeria in the heptathlon.
The following year, at Grosseto in Italy, she won the World Junior Championships.
Seed was sown
It was possibly at that event that the seed was sown for Robbeson in the javelin. Involved in a tight battle with Lithuania’s Viktorija Zemaityte for the heptathlon title, she pulled ahead with a big throw in the javelin to create enough of a cushion to win, despite an 800 metres run she later described as “pathetic”.
Her victory marked the first time an African athlete had won the title of the best all-round athlete in the 18-year history of the championships.
In 2005 Robbeson turned to the javelin. She took part in the Universiade in Ýzmir, Turkey, which had drawn 9 000 athletes from 170 countries. Faced with stiff competition, she managed third place.
In 2006, Robbeson was crowned African champion in Bambous, Mauritius, thanks to a throw of 60.60 metres. Then, representing Africa the World Cup in Athens, she launched the javelin 61.38 metres to win the bronze medal.
Her early performances in 2007 indicate that there is plenty more to come from Robbeson. At the end of February, while taking part in the CNW Provincial Championships, she dominated her event with throws of 61.06m, 61.92m, and 61.70m.
Later, after the official competition was over, she threw a massive 62.70 metres, just 10 centimetres shy of her national record.
Others in the running for the award won by Mulaudzi were hurdlers LJ van Zyl and Alwyn Myburgh, long jumper and triple jumper Khotso Mokoena, and long distance star Hendrick Ramaala.
For her part, Robbeson faced competition from discus thrower Elizna Naude, Commonwealth Games javelin gold medal winner Sunette Viljoen, heptathlete Janice Josephs, and sprinter Geraldine Pillay.
The men’s junior athlete of the year award for went to Robert Oosthuizen, who continued South Africa’s strong tradition in the javelin when he won the gold medal at the World Junior Championships in Beijing. The women’s award went to Simone du Toit, who finished just outside the medals in the shot put and discus at the World Juniors. She was world youth champion in the shot put in 2005.
Hennie Kotze was an easy choice for coach of the year as three of his athletes – LJ van Zyl (gold), Alwyn Myburgh (silver), and Pieter de Villiers (seventh) – made the Commonwealth Games final in the 400 metres hurdles.