Berlin: A wall to climb

Thirty-one South African athletes are preparing to participate in the World Athletics Championships in Berlin, which start on August 15, but they will be competing with a long view towards the London Olympics in 2012.

Team South Africa’s mission in Berlin is twofold. First, they must restore the pride of an athletically bruised nation still blushing after the Beijing Olympics and the disappointment of their solitary silver medal.

Their second task is to provide an indicator of the country’s progress towards the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee’s (Sascoc) goals. Gideon Sam, the president of Sascoc, said he believes South Africa’s athletes could bring home 12 medals from the London Games. His target doesn’t seem too unrealistic after the country’s swimmers collected four medals at the 2009 World Aquatics Championships in Rome, which ended on August 2.

Their track-and-field counterparts will have to find someone in the mould of record-breaking Cameron van der Burgh if they hope to occupy some of the podium positions in Berlin. Athletics South Africa (ASA) is confident they will have ”strong contenders for the finals and medal places”, to give the breaststroke sensation some company on the front pages.

Khotso Mokoena is the name most associate with a medal, after the 2008 Olympic games. The long-jump specialist is ranked third in the world and has been quietly collecting accolades in preparation for the world championships. In July he set a new African long-jump record of 8,50m in Madrid and later that month won at a Barcelona meeting.

LJ van Zyl, the former Commonwealth Games champion in the 400m hurdles, has also had success ahead of the big event. He recorded the year’s fastest 400m hurdles time in Monaco, dipping under 48 seconds. Another South African who is recording his best times is Ruben Ramolefi. He set a personal best in the 1000m steeplechase during a warm-up meeting at the team’s training camp in Neubrandenburg.

Of the female contenders, Sunette Viljoen looks likely to challenge for a medal. She broke the African record in javelin-throwing at the World University Games in Serbia last month with a 65,43m throw; more than three metres further than she has ever thrown before.

There’s also a new face, although some think she bears a close resemblance to a runner with whom many will be familiar.
Eighteen-year-old Caster Semenya has been hailed as the modern Zola Budd. She wiped four national age-category records from the books and registered the year’s fastest 800m time at the African Junior Championships in Mauritius last month. Semenya finished in 1:56.72, more than a second faster than any other runner this year.

Although medals are foremost in the mind of ASA, they’ll also be monitoring the country’s Cinderella story in the hope of a happy ending.

Simon Magakwe rose to prominence in March when he arrived at the South African athletics championships in Stellenbosch with his clothes in a plastic shopping bag.

The runner from Carltonville ran in second-hand spikes but went on to win the 100m sprint in a record 10,21 seconds. His time was the fastest by a local runner in a decade.

Although his raw talent was undeniable, he needed some finishing touches and the Jamaican Athletics Federation obliged.

Magakwe spent six weeks training with the 100m and 200m world champion Usain Bolt.

It’s likely that Magakwe could come up against his mentor in the 100m, but that’s probably the one event when ASA won’t mind if a South African isn’t in the spotlight.

The race is certain to end in less than 10 seconds and Bolt, who holds the world record for the 100m sprint at 9,79 seconds, predicts that the contest could be all over in as little as 9,5 seconds.

The Jamaican also believes he’ll be the man to go the distance. ”I think I can go 9,50-something. My coach said that in Beijing I probably would have gone 9,54. My coach has never been wrong about a time yet.”

America’s Tyson Gay said he was ”really looking forward” to ”the big match-up” with Bolt. The rivalry between the two sprinters is reaching the same legendary status as contests between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal or Manchester United and Arsenal.

To add to the fierceness of the meeting, both Bolt and Gay are carrying battle wounds into their clash. Bolt injured his foot in a car crash earlier this year whereas Gay has a groin strain.

It seems not even the pain can slow them down. Gay clocked the fastest time over 100m this year in Rome at 9,77seconds, just two-hundredths of a second quicker than Bolt’s best of 2009, which he achieved in 9,79seconds in Paris.

But the two sprint kings are not the only ones looking to break world records. Russian pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva is aiming to beat her own mark of 5,05m and Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele is bidding for a fourth consecutive 10000m title.

The authorities also have one for the books: a record number of doping tests will take place with more than 1000 blood and urine samples to be taken throughout the championships. Six hundred of these will be taken before the event. The remaining 400 samples will be obtained from participants throughout the tournament.

Just as competitors have become faster over the years, drugs have become less obvious to detect.

The president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Lamine Diack, said the tournament would be a celebration of clean athletes. Those who slipped under the radar ”should be well aware that not only do we have the possibility to store samples, but that already in the past year the IAAF has prosecuted several cases based on re-analysed samples”.

In February, five athletes, including 1500m champion Rashid Ramzi from Bahrain, who competed at the Beijing Games, were found guilty of a new form of the banned blood booster Epo-Cera.

The Berlin world championships have already encountered irregularities. Five Brazilian athletes were sent home from the preparations after being found to have taken Epo shots. The team’s coaches accepted blame for the incident, saying that the athletes were told they were being given amino-acid shots.

But the scandal that threatened to derail the championships came from Jamaica.

Five athletes from the island, including Sheri-Ann Brooks, the women’s 100m Commonwealth champion, were cleared by Jamaica’s Anti-Doping Commission (Jadco) after their test samples revealed the presence of methylxanthine, a stimulant, because the substance is not on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list.

Jadco is challenging the ruling made by its own disciplinary panel, saying the stimulant is similar to tuaminoheptane, which is a banned substance.

While the internal battle rages on, the athletes are cleared to participate in the tournament.

Either way, it seems Jamaica will be getting noticed at this year’s championships, be it for doping allegations or for a certain Bolt, who may prove to be a lightning strike once again.

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