Hugs for Olympic heroes

Ululations, hugs from friends and strangers, and a gutsy rendition of Shosholoza greeted South Africa’s Olympic team on their arrival in Johannesburg on Tuesday from the Athens Olympic Games.

“The experience was beyond words,” said Ramon di Clemente, who with Donovan Cech, clinched bronze in the rowing.

A group of African National Congress Youth League supporters hoisted taekwondo practitioner Duncan Mahlangu on to their shoulders while his proud mother, Betty, followed closely behind.

“Everything was so new,” said a glowing Mahlangu.

Nicolene Cronje, who came 47th in the 20km road walk, said: “I learnt a lot and best of all I got a fantastic Athenian tan.”

Ian Harries’s daughter Gemma said: “We are just so proud of him,” referring to 800m silver medallist Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, whom her father had trained.

Mulaudzi is still in Europe to compete in a number of other events.

Silver-medal high-jumper Hestrie Cloete will also take part in some European events before returning to her heroine’s welcome.

However, visibly angry coach Martin Marx said that negative media reports about her family in the run-up to the Games could have cost her the gold medal.

“She was under a lot of pressure… but this was pressure of a personal nature.”

Perhaps the loudest cheers were reserved for South Africa’s swimming wonders, Roland Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend and Ryk Neethling, whose arrival left many women gasping for breath.

“I’ve got goose bumps all over,” said a young admirer waiting for their autographs.

Neethling, who said he had received 1 500 e-mails from adoring fans, said it felt great to be back.

Townsend, the youngest of the quartet, said for him the greatest feeling was knowing they had set the world record.

“It’s knowing that you have gone faster than anybody else in history and not only for that race but in the last 50 to 100 years,” he said.

Schoeman and Ferns, proudly displaying their medals around their neck, said it had been an “amazing experience” but it was even better to be home.

Medals were later handed to fans who tried them on for size but were not permitted to wander more than an arm’s length away.

Martin Senore, South Africa’s shooting entry, was greeted enthusiastically by his five-year-old daughter Zurichka, who had earlier said shyly that her dad had been away far too long.

Senore who shot his way to 588th place out of 600 said he had missed his family but that the competition had been fantastic.

“I learnt a lot in a sport I thought I knew everything about,” he said.

Among the fans was “Joe”, the coach in the popular Sasol advertisement, in trademark tracksuit and megaphone.

“The 4x100m gold swimming was the highlight for me,” said the man known to friends as Chris Forrester, the stand-up comic. - Sapa

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