/ 16 August 2008

Mixed Olympic fortunes for South Africa

On the sunniest day so far of the Olympics Games, South African fortunes took a turn for the better thanks primarily to the swimmers as well as athletes who progressed in their competitions.

South Africa will have one last shot at a relay medal on Sunday when Gerhard Zandberg, Cameron van der Burgh, Lyndon Ferns and Darian Townsend line up for the final swimming event of these Games.

The quartet safely negotiated their way through the heats of the 4x100m medley at the Water Cube on Friday night, shattering the national and continental record, set at last year’s world championships in Melbourne, on their way to fourth place in their heat in a time of 3:34,16.

Freestyle leg swimmer Townsend believes it will require another two seconds off that time if they are to finish with a medal.

On Friday morning Roland Schoeman racing in the 50m freestyle semifinals and became the fifth South African swimmer to make a final.

Drawn against Frenchmen Alain Bernard, the Olympic 100m gold medallist, and Amaury Leveaux, who set the Olympic record of 21,46 in Thursday night’s heats, it was always going to be a fast race with no quarter asked or given. Schoeman was fastest from the blocks but it was Bernard who touched first in 21,54 seconds, with the South African in third behind Australia’s Ashley Callus.

”I’m happy with the time — it was all about making the finals. Anything goes tomorrow [Saturday],” said Schoeman, who recorded his second-best-ever time of 21,74 seconds. ”This is my baby for these Olympics — I have done everything I can to swim fast. I’ve got two 21,7s under my belt and I believe I can go a bit faster tomorrow.”

South Africa’s other semifinalist, Gideon Louw, was unable to qualify in the previous race, but swam a personal best time of 21,97 in finishing seventh behind Brazil’s Cesar Cielo Fihlo, who set a new Olympic record of 21,34 seconds.

The other swimmers in action on Friday failed to go through to the next rounds. The women’s 4x100m medley team of Melissa Corfe, Suzaan van Biljon, Mandy Loots and Lize-Mari Retief finished sixth in 4:04,2 but were in high spirits after the race.

Despite shooting off the blocks with the quickest reaction time in her 50m freestyle heat, Retief could only manage an eighth place in 25,44 seconds. In the 1 500m freestyle, Troyden Prinsloo battled to keep up with the pace, finishing seventh in his heat in 15:12,64 — 33 seconds after winner Grant Hackett.

Juan van Deventer got the athletics off to a good start, decisively winning the third heat of the 1 500m on Friday night.

The Johannesburg-based athlete, who has come to the fore this season, ran a tactical race to take the tape in 3:36,32.

Rashid Ramzi from Bahrain recorded the fastest time of the night, winning the fourth heat in a season’s best 3:32,89.

Ter de Villiers was first to tackle the 400m hurdles, drawn in lane three inside American Bershawn Jackson, who had the second-fastest mark of the season. De Villiers was with Jackson for much of the race, which was taken out by Belize’s Jonathon Williams who faded to fourth over the final 80m as Jackson pushed to the line in 49,20. De Villiers finished second, 0,04 seconds adrift.

Athens finalist Alwyn Myburgh put two into the bag starting inside defending Athens silver medallist Danny McFarlane, with Angelo Taylor in the outside lane. McFarlane and Taylor are ranked fifth and sixth respectively this season, but reversed this order in the heat, which Taylor won in 48,67, the second-fastest time of the night.

In the fastest heat of the night Jamaican Markino Buckley took a field that included LJ van Zyl, through to a 48,65-second qualifying time. Van Zyl was drawn in lane eight, leaving him blind on the competition, but after clearing the eighth hurdle saved energy by turning down the pace to take second in 48,86.

Discus thrower Elizna Naude, competing in the second qualifying group, just never found her rhythm, recording her best distance of 58,75m in her opening throw.

Rower Rika Geyser won Friday’s C final in the single sculls to finish in position 13 of the regatta and show that she is capable of a future top-12 placing.

Taking the lead from the gun, Geyser opened a 1,32-second edge over China’s Soraya Jadue in the first 500m. As the Chinese challenge fizzled out, Cuba took up the chase but were still 4,45 seconds adrift at halfway. Spain’s Nuria Dominguez made a charge over the final kilometre but lacked the strength to haul in Geyser, who finished in 7:35,06.

”I’m very pleased with my final, but disappointed not to have made the B final,” said Geyser. ”But this is my first Olympics, I know I will improve from here.”

The men’s fencing team lost their first-round match against China 28 to 45 points. Dario Torrente was the only South African to win a bout, scoring 5-3 over Goujie Li, while Sello Maduma had the next two closest bouts, scoring 6-7 against Li, and 4-5 against Lianchi Yin.

”It was a very tough and a very fast match. China obviously had home-crowd advantage, which was a little tough for us — but they even cheered me on after the first bout,” said Torrente, who at 42 is the oldest Team SA member.

”On a personal level I think I did poorly but it’s something I’m going to work on. I’ll just go from strength to strength,” said a disappointed Maduma.

The South African team would normally have been required to continue through bouts to determine lower placing, but received byes to finish ninth.

The men’s hockey team continued to struggle through their pool matches, going down to Britain 0-2, the South Africans still searching for the opposition’s net after three matches and a goal difference deficit of 17.

James Tindall opened Britain’s account in the 20th minute. The South African attack put their opponents under considerable pressure but they were unable to turn it into points. Matt Daly scored the second field goal in the 67th minute.

South Africa will play Pakistan and Canada in their remaining pool matches.

”We didn’t come here to get experience. We came to get results. It’s difficult to pick ourselves up after the last two games, but we knew we would be in a difficult time at this point,” said coach Gregg Clark, who played in the team in Athens.

Diver Jenna Dreyer could only amass 210,9 from her five dive series in the 3m springboard event to finish 28th overall in the competition. Her cause was not helped by a failure to score any points on her second dive, but she recovered some form for the fourth dive, which attracted her highest score of 64,5. Dreyer, who is attending her second Olympics, beat only the Belarusian and Spanish divers.

Apart from Schoeman’s 50m freestyle final on Saturday morning, the focus will be on the rowing centre where Ramon di Clemente and Shaun Keeling face crews from New Zealand, Canada, Australia, the United States and Germany in the men’s pairs. Di Clemente won bronze in the same event in Athens and with new partner Keeling could possibly repeat that feat.

Also on Saturday, the women’s hockey team line up against Spain in the hope of salvaging some pride — and a few goals — from their fourth pool match.

At the Bird’s Nest stadium, Khotso Mokoena goes into the qualifying round of the long jump, which should be a formality for the world indoor champion, Tsholofelo Thipe runs in the heats of the 400m, and early on Saturday morning Ruben Ramolefi aims to make the 3 000m steeplechase semifinals.

The major focus of the night will be the three 400m hurdlers hoping to secure places in Monday’s final. — Sapa