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Rainbow nation looks for gold in Beijing

South Africa will go into their fifth Olympic Games since their return from sporting isolation with their medal hopes once again pinned on their swimmers and track and field athletes.

Since their Olympic ban, imposed in 1964 because of South Africa’s apartheid regime, was lifted by the International Olympic Committee and they were allowed to compete in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, South Africa has won just 18 medals in total.

Of those, 16 have come in athletics and swimming, with the two codes accounting for eight medals each.

Rowing, at Athens in 2004, and tennis, in Barcelona, have provided the Rainbow Nation with one apiece.

Nothing is ever certain in South African sport, where politics plays such a large role.

Swimming South Africa were hit by a funding crisis in May, while a parliamentary committee on sport criticised the racial make-up of the men’s hockey team.

There is similar uncertainty when predicting the medal prospects of the country’s Olympic team for Beijing, which, with 225 members, is the biggest yet sent to the Games by South Africa.

Roland Schoeman, who won three medals in the pool in Athens, is expected to lead the charge for medals in China.

He was one of the stars of the 4x100m relay team that stunned the world by winning gold and breaking the world record in Athens, beating a Netherlands team that included Pieter van den Hoogenband and the United States four led by Michael Phelps.

Schoeman became the first South African to win three medals at one Olympic Games when he added the silver and bronze medals from the 100m and 50m freestyle events respectively.

However, it was reported on Sunday that he would not be taking part in the 100m freestyle event.

The 4x100m team has been reformed, with Schoeman, Ryk Neethling, Lyndon Ferns and Gideon Louw, the latter taking the place of Darian Townsend, finding form in an international gala in Santa Clara in June, and is edging closer to the world record time of three minutes and 12,6 seconds, which is held by the US.

Suzaan van Biljon is considered a medal chance in the 100m and 200m breaststroke, as is Gerhard Zandberg in the 50m backstroke.

Natalie du Toit, who had her left leg amputated in a traffic accident in 2001, became the first athlete to be named in a nation’s Olympic and Paralympic teams.

She qualified for the 10km open water event by finishing fourth in the world championships in Spain earlier this year, finishing just 5,2 seconds behind the winner.

The 10km open water race will make its debut in Beijing and while Du Toit is hopeful of improving, she has been hampered in her preparations as she cannot find a 50m heated pool in Johannesburg in which to train at altitude.

Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, who took silver in the 800m in Athens, is the brightest South African prospect on the track.

His form is on the up as he showed at the Andalucia Grand Prix in Spain last month where he finished second and ran the fifth-fastest time of his career.

The retirement of high jump star Hestrie Cloete, who was a silver medallist in Sydney and Athens, has left a gap in the South African field squad, although long jumper Godfrey Moekena has had a string of good results in meets in Europe this year and could surprise.

Rower Ramon di Clemente won bronze in the men’s pairs in Athens, but four years on Don Cech, his partner of nearly 10 years, has retired and he has teamed up with Shaun Keeling for Beijing.

Despite only being together for six months the two have quickly struck up an accord and impressed at the recent regatta in Henley.

South Africa have named a surprisingly large canoeing team, which will be pinning its hopes on Shaun Rubenstein, a former world champion, who will be one to watch in the 500m and 100m K1 events.

Sifiso Nhlapo emerged as a late medal contender after taking bronze in the BMX world championships in Beijing in June.

BMX will make its debut at the 2008 Games and Nhlapo is confident of success.

”An Olympic medal is now my only goal,” said the 21-year old Nhlapo.

”At various events in the past year I have beaten all of the world’s best riders and here I showed that I can get a medal at a major international event.

”It’s given me the extra confidence I need to go for a medal at the Olympics. But it’s also showed my rivals that I am now a real medal threat.” — Sapa-AFP

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