Team SA shine – but no medals yet

11 August 2008

South Africa’s men’s 4 by 100 metres freestyle relay team were dethroned as Olympic champions on Monday in an astonishing final in which the first five teams bettered the world record that the USA had set in the heats.

The South Africans had qualified for the final by finishing third in their heat, with the sixth best time overall. They clocked three minutes 13.06 seconds, which bettered their gold medal winning time in Athens by 0.11, and was also a new national record.

The USA, swimming without their three fastest sprinters, showed amazing depth as they cracked their own world record of 3:12.46 with a time of 3:12.23. Australia and France also finished beneath the previous mark.

Relay final

In the final, the Americans included Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale and Jason Lezak, with only Cullen Jones retained from their team that qualified for the final. It proved to be one of the most eye-opening of all the events swum so far in Beijing.

Despite their enviable depth, the Americans needed the fastest leg ever swum in a relay to reel in France over the final 100 metres. Lezak clocked 46.06 seconds with the flying start and hauled in Alain Bernard, who holds the world record at 47.50 seconds, to take the USA to victory in 3:08.24. The French touched a mere eight hundredths of a second later.

The winning time slashed an astounding 3.99 seconds off the record that had been set in the heats.

Australia took third, Italy fourth, and Sweden fifth, all under the old mark. Canada followed in sixth and South Africa’s Roland Schoeman, Darian Townsend, Lyndon Ferns, and Ryk Neethling finished seventh in 3:12.66, which was once again a national record. Great Britain finished eighth.

Basson impressive

Jean Basson excelled in the 200 metres freestyle heats, winning his race and recording the second fastest time of 1:46.31. US superstar Michael Phelps turned in the fourth fastest qualifying time.

Basson then upped the excitement level considerably by winning his semi-final in 1:46.13. Two swimmers in the other semi-final bettered his time, but not by much, so a cracking final is on the cards. Phelps, in his quest for a record eight Olympic gold medals, made it through by finishing third.

While South Africa’s swimmers have failed to win a medal in the pool, it is hard to criticise their performances, which have been littered with national and African records.

National records

Gerhard Zandberg won his heat in the 100 metres backstroke in an African record of 53.75 seconds, which was the fifth best time of the heats. He couldn’t match that time in the semi-finals, clocking 53.98, which was good for only sixth and saw him fail to make the final.

Riaan Schoeman failed to progress beyond the heats in the 400 metres individual medley, but his time of 4:14.04 was a national record. Kathryn Meaklim also couldn’t progress beyond the 400 IM heats, but she, too, set a national record, lopping almost four seconds off the previous mark in 4:37.11.

Mandy Loots established yet another SA record in the heats of the 100 butterfly with a time of 58.61. It wasn’t good enough for her to go on to the semi-finals, but Lize-Marie Retief lowered the new record shortly afterwards to 58.20, which earned her a spot in the semis where she finished last in her race.

The one-minute barrier

Cameron van der Burgh became the first African to break through the one-minute barrier in the 100 metres breaststroke in the heats with his time of 59.96 seconds. He was third in his race as Norway’s Alexander Dale Oen won in an Olympic record that was later broken in the final.

Van der Burgh was not as sharp in his semi-final as he had been in the heats and his time of 1:00.57 saw him eliminated after he finished fifth in the second race.

Suzaan van Biljon qualified for the semi-finals of the women’s 100 metres breaststroke by finishing third in her heat in 1:07.55, which was the fifth best time. The winner of the race, Australia’s Liesel Jones, set an Olympic record of 1:05.64 and then won her semi-final in a slightly slower time. Van Biljon was badly off song in the semi-finals, finishing in a time two seconds slower than her time in the heats, and in last place.

Augustyn’s star on the rise

In the men’s cycling road race, won by Spain’s Sammy Sanchez over a tough and hilly 245 kilometre course, John-Lee Augustyn, one day shy of his 22nd birthday, excelled by finishing in 27th place. With his recent strong performance in the Tour de France and his gritty showing in Beijing, Augustyn has confirmed that he is a star in the making.

Marissa van der Merwe finished 34th in the women’s road race, while teenager Cherise Taylor settled for 49th place.

The SA women’s hockey team got their campaign off to a rough start against defending champions The Netherlands. They were crushed 6-0.

Rowing hopes

Rower Ramon di Clemente kept alive his hopes of adding to the bronze medal he won at the Athens Olympics men’s pairs with Donovan Cech, who has since retired. He and new partner Shaun Keeling comfortably qualified for the semi-finals by finishing second in their heat.

Keeling is confident they can challenge for a medal; he says they held something in reserve in their outing.

Rika Geyser qualified for the quarterfinals of the women’s single scull by finishing third in her heat.

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