13 August 2012
South Africa finished the 2012 London Olympic Games as Africa’s best performing country, placing 24th on the medals table. With three golds, two silvers and one bronze medal, the London Olympics were South Africa’s most successful Games since the country was readmitted to the Olympic fold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Fittingly, it was Oscar Pistorius, not a medal winner, but a history-maker, who carried the South African flag at the closing ceremony on Sunday evening.
As the first amputee to compete in the Olympics athletics competition, Pistorius rewrote the book on what is possible and was one of the leading stories of the Games. Not only did he compete in the 400 metres, he also made it to the semi-finals.
Chad le Clos takes on Michael Phelps
A star was born as Chad le Clos, who was expected to make an impact in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, sent shockwaves through the Olympics by beating the legendary Michael Phelps in the American’s signature event, the 200 metres butterfly, at which he was unbeaten for over a decade, to win gold.
His father, Bert le Clos, became a minor celebratory for his hold-nothing-back teary-eyed celebration of his son’s success, while the 20-year-old captured the hearts of sports fans with his tears of happiness as he stood atop the Olympic podium.
Le Clos later added a silver medal to his collection after finishing second to Phelps, his hero, in the 100 metres butterfly.
Cameron van der Burgh stamps his authority
Cameron van der Burgh showed that the age of technology and the swimsuit, during which so many world records were set, did not mean that those records were unassailable.
The fastest breaststroker in the world over 50 metres had to contest the 100 metres in London because there is no 50 metres event at the Olympic Games. He made an excellent transition in time for the Games and his semi-final time of 58.83, an Olympic record, was by some way the fastest time ahead of the final.
Granted the opportunity to go for gold, Van der Burgh didn’t falter, smashing the world record to capture the title in 58.46 seconds. His was the first of South Africa’s three gold medals.
SA’s first rowing Olympic medal
The men’s lightweight fours rowing team of Matthew Brittain, Lawrence Ndlovu, John Smith and James Thompson snatched the country’s third gold medal with a performance that was every bit as shocking as Chad le Clos’ upset victory over Michael Phelps.
In one of the best races of the Games, they came from behind, in fourth place with 500 metres to go, to grab an incredible win ahead of Great Britain and Denmark. Their scenes of celebration were priceless.
Caster Semenya: grace under pressure
There were huge expectations on the shoulders of Caster Semenya after she recorded the fastest time in the semi-finals of the women’s 800 metres.
Unfortunately, as she admitted after the final, she got it a little wrong tactically and had to settle for the silver medal. If that result is considered a disappointment for a 21-year-old, then so be it.
Alternately, one could consider just how talented and brilliant Semenya is to have drawn such expectations at such a young age. Finishing second in the world, against the very best the world has to offer, is an astonishing achievement.
The bronze that was good as gold
Preceding Semenya’s silver medal, Bridgitte Hartley was the first of South Africa’s women to win an Olympic medal at the 2012 Games. She was also the first South African sprint canoeist ever to medal in the Olympics when she placed third in the 500 metres K1 sprint after a strong finish.
She was a picture of glowing happiness after claiming her medal as she jumped up and down on the podium and waved to the crowd with joy.
Spare a thought, though, for javelin thrower Sunette Viljoen, who missed out on a medal by one place. She performed strongly in the qualification rounds, topping her group, and also launched a strong first throw in the final before her challenge faltered.
However, as the owner of the leading distance in the world this year before the final, she deserves credit for being one of the world’s elite javelin throwers. No one was more disappointed than Viljoen about missing out on the Olympic podium.
Mountain biker Burry Stander put in a massive effort on the final day of the Games in the cross-country race, but came up just five seconds short of a bronze medal after almost one-and-a-half hours of racing. He, too, did South Africa proud.
Roland Schoeman: battling lack of support
Think also of someone like Roland Schoeman, who in his fourth Olympics made it to the final of the 50 metres freestyle for the third time in succession. At age 32, he finished sixth. Later it emerged that Schoeman had received no financial backing for the year-and-a-half before the Games.
Remember that this a man who in 2005 turned down a R40-million offer to transfer his allegiance to Qatar, saying that it was of “tremendous importance to me that I am part of the vibrant, challenging, frustrating, beautiful and above all hopeful country I call home”.
Proud South Africans like Schoeman, a winner of every colour of Olympic medal in Athens in 2004, deserve better support.
There was clearly a correlation between the support athletes received and how they performed in London; those countries that offered their athletes the best support were well rewarded with medals.
South Africa’s huge potential
Spare a thought, too, for those South Africans who didn’t challenge for medals. Some made finals, some produced personal best times and South African records, while some didn’t quite fire. They all made a lot of sacrifices to make it to London 2012. All of them could have done even better with better support.
Compared to other countries, South Africa has a long way to go in support of its athletes. Now that it is a democratic nation, there are so many more sportsmen and women who can be considered for the Olympics than was the case before 1992.
Even though more countries than ever before now take part in the Olympics – 204 in London – the greater pool of athletes should open up the way for South Africa to improve on its biggest ever haul of 10 medals if the necessary support is provided.
Finally, a word of praise for those athletes who wore the green and gold: while the country finished as the leading African nation on the medal table, the total number of medals won was bettered by Ethiopia and Kenya.
Yet, those countries are competitive in athletics only, while South Africa produces good athletes in a far wider spectrum of sports. That is a good thing, and hopefully in the future more happy surprises await in those sports, like the one produced by the lightweight fours rowing team at Eton Dornay.
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