Prospecting for gold at the Olympics
It was Nobel laureate Niels Bohr who once said: “It is very difficult to make an accurate prediction, especially about the future.” Nothing like a quantum mechanics expert to point out the obvious.
And while sport may have been the furthest thing from the Danish physicist’s mind when he said this, his words ring true when looking ahead to the biggest sporting event of 2008, the Beijing Olympics—and the South African team’s chances.
With the heads of the various sport federations loath to stick their necks out and make any predictions, one has to look at recent performances to have an idea of how the medal table may look come August.
And with the South African athletics team returning empty-handed from the last World Championships in Osaka, the prospects on the athletics track (traditionally one of the country’s favourite hunting grounds for medals) are looking a little bleak.
General manager of Athletics South Africa, Linda Ferns, doesn’t see it that way, however.
“Obviously we were disappointed after Osaka, where the top athletes didn’t perform,” she said.
“But it was a bit of a bitter-sweet championship for us. The sweet part was that it was a very young team and the youngsters did really well, producing a lot of personal bests and reaching semifinals and finals.
“We’re happy with where we are at the moment. Everybody is always psyched up for an Olympic year and our hopes are high.”
Ferns said she was confident that the athletes would improve on the two silver medals won at the previous Olympics in Athens. “We don’t want to put pressure on any of the athletes, but I think we’ve got a good chance of winning gold in Beijing and bringing glory to the country.”
Heading the charge will be Mbulaeni Mulaudzi—the proud owner of one of those silver medals from Athens. The 800m star again finished the year with the best time over two laps, the one minute 43,74 he ran in Monaco last July.
But the former world indoor champion was one of the athletes who failed to impress at the World Championships just a few weeks later, coming in seventh in the final behind many of the runners he had beaten regularly before that competition.
Mulaudzi’s tactics at major championships have been brought into question over the years, but in Athens he proved he has what it takes to perform on the biggest stage of all. He will certainly be shouldering much of the nation’s hopes when he steps on to the Beijing track.
Also in with a chance will be the country’s top 400m hurdlers, LJ van Zyl, Alwyn Myburgh and Ter de Villiers, while the ever-improving Khotso Mokoena will be the man to watch in the field events, having finished in fifth spot in the world’s top list this year with a leap of 8,34m in the long jump.
On the roads, in an event as unpredictable as the marathon, 2004 New York marathon winner Hendrick Ramaala is always in with a shout, especially after the disappointment of dropping out of the Athens race.
As for the women, there are no longer any guarantees since Hestrie Cloete hung up her spikes. But the lady most likely to at least reach a final is discus thrower Elizna Naude.
Meanwhile, having travelled to Athens without any women in their team, things are looking up in that regard for South African swimming. Suzaan van Biljon (fourth in the 200m breaststroke at the World Championships), Jessica Pengelly, Keri-Leigh Shaw and Wendy Trott are all eager to make a splash.
But it will be the darlings of 2004, Roland Schoeman and Ryk Neethling, who are most likely to reach the podium. Swimming SA have had their usual round of squabbles with their top swimmers in recent months, but if these can be resolved, Schoeman is still the man for the big occasion, having bagged gold, silver and bronze at the last Games.
Schoeman, who is still based in the United States, is likely to be in contention in the 50m and 100m freestyle, with Neethling providing some stiff competition in the latter event. The country’s 4x100m freestyle relay team have had their world record eclipsed by the Americans since Athens, and are unlikely to spring as massive a surprise on the swimming world as they did in taking the gold at the last Olympics. But they could certainly still reach the podium.
Whether 50m backstroke world champion Gerhard Zandberg will replace Darian Townsend in the quartet remains to be seen. The South Africans will also field a strong 4x100m medley relay team, with Lyndon Ferns (also a possibility for a medal in the 100m butterfly) joining Schoeman (freestyle), Zandberg (backstroke) and world championships bronze medallist Cameron van Burgh (breaststroke) for that event.
“We would like to maintain our results from Athens, but we are ultimately building a team for 2012 and 2016,” explained Swimming SA general manager of athlete development Rushdee Warley. “I’m sure our experienced swimmers will come through in Beijing, though. As far as we are concerned everything has gone well so far, and we’ve done all we can to support our swimmers in their preparation.”
Away from the pool but still on the water, Athens bronze medal-winning rowers Don Cech and Ramon di Clemente will be in with a shout once again in the heavyweight pairs, while Shaun Rubenstein has been producing some promising results in the 1 500m event in sprint canoeing.
Then there’s also South Africa’s 2007 Tour de France stage winner, Robert Hunter, in the 260km road race. Without the support of the large back-up team that plenty of the other countries’ competitors are likely to have, however, he may struggle to stay in there for a medal.
Team SA returned from Athens with a haul of six medals—their largest since reintroduction to the Olympics in 1992. While there are certainly chances in several sports, they will be hard-pressed to better that in Beijing.