Olympics 2012: Pedal to the medal for SA

Divers Ivan Garcia and Saul German Sanchez of Mexico practice during a training session at the main pool of the Aquatics Centre. (Jorge Silva, Reuters)

Divers Ivan Garcia and Saul German Sanchez of Mexico practice during a training session at the main pool of the Aquatics Centre. (Jorge Silva, Reuters)

The London Olympics officially begins today with its opening ceremony and South African athletes will be bearing the weight of expectation as they go in search of the mythical 12-medal target set by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympics Committee (Sascoc).

South Africa's Olympic participation actually began on Wednesday when the women's football team, Banyana Banyana, played their first group match against Sweden.

The battle will continue in the pool on Saturday when the swimming programme begins with one of South Africa's main medal hopes, Cameron van der Burgh in the 100m breaststroke, swimming his first heat.

But whereas the athletes will focus on putting on their best performance, Sascoc will breathe a sigh of relief that the Games are finally taking place after a string of controversial moments leading up to the global showpiece.

The committee has not had an easy ride in the build-up to the London Games.

There was the furore over the decision to award the team-kit deal to Chinese company Erke, and it was also forced to explain why so many support staff were heading to London.

The South African team has 125 athletes who will be backed up by 46 officials serving in various categories in each sport, 12 medical staff and a general team management complement of eight.

Sascoc has also had to deal with two athletes, cyclist Cherise Taylor and equestrian Alex Peternell, appealing against their exclusion from the team.

Taylor lost her appeal but Peternell, after twice appealing to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, finally won his battle on Wednesday. Sascoc bowed to the court's ruling and included Peternell in the team in place of Paul Hart.

Sascoc issued an unusually emotive statement about the Peternell case in which chief executive Tubby Reddy said: "It is indeed a very sad day for us as a country to be instructed to select an athlete for Team South Africa against our will, but being a disciplined member of the Olympic movement, we have no option but to adhere fully to this decision.

"This decision is unfortunate as it forces upon the South African public an athlete that they do not necessarily recognise and one that they do not necessarily support," Reddy said.

Sticky situations
Sascoc should be used to dealing with sticky situations considering the amount of practice it has had in the recent past.

Caster Semeyna and the gender controversy that engulfed her after her gold medal in the 800m at the 2009 World Championships led to a worldwide brouhaha, and Oscar Pistorius's participation at last year's World Championships was no less controversial.

No matter where you stand on double-amputee Pistorius running with able-bodied athletes, the media storm around him just will not go away. This week he was once again forced to defend himself in print after some experts claimed that he gained an advantage from running with his carbon-fibre legs.

Semenya and Pistorius are big news outside South Africa and they will continue to garner media interest, because both have interesting backgrounds and the media loves even a sniff of controversy.

But the bad news that has dogged South Africa's Olympic build-up should not detract from some genuine medal hopes, although the 12-medal mark set by Sascoc seems a rather unrealistic target.

A triumph
This becomes abundantly clear when one considers that South Africa has won only 19 medals since readmission into the Olympic fold in 1992.

If Team South Africa can come home with even six medals, it should be considered a triumph, although three medals may be a more realistic target.

Commonwealth champion Van der Burgh is one athlete who has a definite shot at a medal.

He is the world short-course record holder in the 50m and 100m breaststroke events and won bronze over the same distance at last year's World Championships in Shanghai.

Van der Burgh does not shy away from the expectation that he is a medal hope and instead embraces the extra pressure. "If there is pressure, I'm not feeling it. For me it's a great honour [to be expected to bring back a medal]," he said after competing in the South African Championships in Durban earlier this year.

Medal hopes
"It's really a big inspiration and boost, because I know that people are putting their faith in me and they trust me. I don't want to let those people down," he said.

Other realistic medal hopes include javelin thrower Sunette Viljoen, the 4x400m track team, which is ranked second in the world, mountain biker Burry Stander, BMX rider Sifiso Nhlapo, canoeist Bridgitte Hartley, long jumper Khotso Mokoena, a silver medallist at the 2008 Games, and Semenya.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the massive expectation placed on the team to do well at the Olympics by Sascoc, it appears to have impressive spirit.

This was highlighted during the swanky farewell banquet at the Sandton Convention Centre when the chef de mission, Patience Shikwambana, burst into a rousing impromptu rendition of Shosholoza and made everyone stand up and sing. The singing was joined with impressive gusto from team and management alike.

No one can say that the South African Olympic team lacks determination or pride, but whether that will translate into medal success remains to be seen.



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