/ 15 August 2008

There is still Olympic hope for SA, apparently

All is not lost yet, but there is a fair bit of panic in some South African circles as, after almost a week in Beijing, the country is yet to feature on the medals table.

Perhaps it is because at this stage of the Games four years ago, South Africa already had a gold and silver in the bag, or maybe it’s that the expectations were unreasonably high coming into these Olympics. Either way, it might be a little too soon to write this off as South Africa’s worst Games to date. After all, the athletics programme is still to come and there’s another week of action ahead.

Among the track and field athletes, BMX riders, rowers and canoeists, there are surely one or two who can ensure the country does not sink to the lowest levels it has reached — at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin where featherweight Charles Catterall was the sole medallist after collecting silver in the boxing ring.

Nevertheless, questions are still being asked why the Beijing crowds have not yet heard the strains of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, particularly at the famous Water Cube swimming venue.

Since the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 where golden girl Penny Heyns bagged double gold, South Africa’s swimmers have consistently contributed to the medal count at the Games.

Strange as it might sound, the problem with this year’s results probably started in Athens four years ago where a team of just seven men were sent to compete in the swimming. As it turned out, Roland Schoeman and his teammates were in sensational form and managed to stun the swimming world with some exceptional performances. But there were very few younger swimmers in the team, simply there to gain the experience of their first Olympics and to learn from it.

As a result, there was no base built for the next Games and no long-term plan so that this time round, with the top stars a little off form, the country is looking to a number of young and inexperienced (when it comes to the Olympics) swimmers who are actually here to gain experience so that they can be the ones to perform in London four years from now. But thankfully the long-term plan is now in place for 2012.

Although they might not have featured in the medals, these young swimmers have done everything that could have been asked of them — swimming best times and shattering numerous South African and African records.

Natalie du Toit, the Paralympic star who has made history by qualifying for these Games in the 10km marathon swim, summed it up well, saying: ”I’ve been watching the swimming team and they’ve done amazingly well. Most of them have gone out and broken South African and African records and made semifinals, which I don’t think they ever dreamed of. They have gone out and swum their best times and we can’t ask for any more than that.”

Athens relay gold medallist Darian Townsend also commented: ”It was a small team in 2004 and none of our girls got any exposure, so for the young girls here this is their first Olympics. They’ve been to world champs and that kind of thing but nothing compares to the competition here, so the small team in Athens did have some impact on the results now.”

Meanwhile, Hajera Kajee, chef de mission for Team South Africa, is refusing to panic just yet. ”I’m looking at the athletics team and Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, Khotso Mokoena and Hendrick Ramaala are looking in great shape. There’s a lot of talent there and I am hoping they can clinch a gold for us,” she said.

”But as South Africans we need to be patient. We always think we can work miracles — and there have been some of those like the ‘awesome foursome’ in Athens — but we have only been back for 12 years and are very young in the international arena.”

As for the suggestion that the limited resources available should be concentrated on sports that have clear medal potential rather than the ”no-hopers” such as fencing and badminton, Kajee said: ”We can’t do that. Not everyone in the country swims or does athletics. Many of the smaller sports would argue that if they had more resources available they would be able to produce medals, so it doesn’t work like that.”

Still, the Olympic team remains sponsorless — and if South African athletes are expected to compete on an equal footing with the rest of the world, the country will have to match the investment that is made in those teams against whom they are competing. A mere R95-million over four years for a team of 135 athletes is not going to go far on the medal table.