There’s something about the 800m.
It’s the only event in which two different South Africans have medalled at two different Games since readmission.
And in Beijing again it’s the one the country will be pinning its hopes on for another piece of silverware in the coming week as other medal prospects are looking rather sparse.
Mbulaeni Mulaudzi is once again the man who will shoulder the weight of that expectation, having claimed the silver in Athens four years ago.
He had a far from ideal build-up to those Games, with the man from Limpopo struggling with injury, illness and a massive loss of confidence ahead of the race that eventually saw him beating compatriot and Atlanta silver medallist Hezekiel Sepeng, along with a host of top-name two-lap runners including world record holder Wilson Kipketer.
Things have been a bit smoother this time round with Mulaudzi dipping under the 1,44 mark three times in recent months. But it’s likely to be a tough race with the man who beat Mulaudzi four years ago in Athens, Russia’s Yuriy Borzakovskiy, determined to become only the fourth man in history to defend an Olympic 800m title.
Also keen to make his mark will be plucky 19-year-old Abubaker Kaki from Sudan, who has run the fastest time in the world this year in the event, while Yusuf Saad Kamel of Bahrain (formerly Gregory Konchellah of Kenya) and Cuba’s Yeimer Lopez have also all gone quicker than Mulaudzi this year. But the 800m is all about tactics and not necessarily speed, and it’s who gets it right on the day who will take home the spoils.
And there’s still a matter of heats and semifinals, which need to be negotiated first—something Mulaudzi will not be taking for granted after the desperate disappointment of making an untimely exit from the World Championships a few years back.
While Mulaudzi is making his way around the track, it will be Khotso Mokoena who represents South Africa’s best shot at a medal in the field events.
But although the 800m is about tactics, long jump is purely about distance and Mokoena has only the 10th furthest leap of the year. He has proven before that he is the man for the big occasion, however, winning the world indoor title earlier this year, and the 23-year-old jumper will be hoping to make up for the organisational shambles of Athens where he was taken to the stadium late and so had no time to warm up before his event.
Also in the mix for athletics medals will be Robert Oosthuizen (who may just spring a surprise in the javelin) and the ever-present crop of 400m hurdlers. In Athens it was Alwyn Myburgh who emerged as the nation’s finest hurdler, being the only South African to make it to the final. This time it may just be his teammate, LJ van Zyl, who sneaks ahead with Ter de Villiers hot on his heels. Van Zyl is the third fastest 400m hurdler in the world this year, having run 48,22 at a meet in Athens last month.
Then of course there is the marathon, which is always a tricky one to predict. Hendrick Ramaala certainly has the credentials, having a New York Marathon victory under his belt, but heat, humidity and the constant haze of Beijing’s notorious pollution all add to the event’s unpredictability.
As for the women, it’s a pity double Olympic silver medallist and former world champion Hestrie Cloete is looking after her and husband Jurie Els’s new baby somewhere in New Zealand, watching the Games on TV, as the country’s women may just struggle to come close to the podium in Beijing.