2 August 2012
South Africa’s men’s lightweight fours rowing team of Matthew Brittain, Lawrence Ndlovu, John Smith and James Thompson pulled off a sensational victory at the London Olympics on Thursday afternoon to capture the country’s third gold medal at the Games and its first ever in rowing.
It was an incredible final, as close as could be, but the South African crew from the University of Pretoria came through with an amazing late burst of speed to take victory after entering the last 500 metres in third place.
As they had done in the semi-finals, the very experienced Danish team got away from the other five teams at the start on Lake Dornay.
The Netherlands struggled from the start and were not a factor in lane one. Meanwhile, South Africa, Australia, Great Britain and Switzerland were bundled together, chasing the Danes.
At 500 metres, Denmark led, in a time of 1:29.2, with Australia in second, 1.4 seconds off the pace, South Africa in third, a further 0.2 seconds back, Switzerland in fourth 1.9 seconds behind the Danes, and Great Britain 2.2 seconds off the lead.
Unlike in the semi-finals, Denmark were unable to build up a big lead as Australia, the world champions, made a strong push as the race neared the 1 000 metre mark.
Behind them, it was difficult to separate South Africa and Great Britain, as Switzerland fell back a touch.
Denmark’s lead over Australia was down to 0.7 seconds at halfway, which they reached in 3:00.1. The home team, Britain, was 1.8 seconds behind, and South Africa 2.1 seconds adrift.
500 metres to go
Approaching the 1 500m mark, Denmark’s lead was down to about half a boat length over Australia and Great Britain. They went through the three-quarter distance in 4:31.7, a mere 0.2 ahead of Australia. Great Britain were just one second behind the leaders, and South Africa trailed by 1.3 seconds.
The crowd, with Great Britain in the running for a medal, was roaring loud support as a tremendous dice unfolded in front of their eyes.
Suddenly it became clear that the white boat of South Africa was making inroads on the three yellow boats in the chase for medals. They had moved ahead of Australia and Britain and were racing Denmark for gold. With the finishing line in sight, it was too close to call.
As Denmark pulled, they drew ahead, but when South Africa pulled, they now had the lead, which was exchanged a number of times. But then, the men in green and gold inched clear of the Danes, with Britain still challenging, as the noise of the crowd lifted even louder.
It became clear South Africa had an edge over the other challengers and they held on to it, crossing the finishing line in 6:02.84 to take the win and claim gold. It was a brilliant race and an outstanding victory.
So close was the finish that none of the crews knew who had won for a while, but when they saw the result up on the board, South Africa’s new “Awesome Foursome” found enough energy to celebrate a memorable triumph.
Great Britain sneaked ahead of Denmark to win silver in 6:03.09. The Danes finished in 6:03.16 and took bronze as a mere 0.32 seconds separated the three medal winning boats.
With South Africa having won three gold medals so far, the country has – within the first week of competition – matched its best gold medal return since it came back to the Olympic Games from international isolation in 1992. That total was achieved in Atlanta in 1996, when Penny Heyns won the 100m and 200m breaststroke and Josiah Thugwane won the men’s marathon.
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