/ 3 August 2012

There’s gold in South Africa’s pool of talent

Gold rush: Chad le Clos celebrates his stunning win in the 200m butterfly final.
Gold rush: Chad le Clos celebrates his stunning win in the 200m butterfly final.

Cameron van der Burgh's and Chad le Clos's stunning swims to clinch Olympic gold medals at the London Games have been hailed in some quarters as a springboard for swimming in South Africa to go on to bigger and better things.

Much has been made about Van der Burgh and Le Clos being "home-grown" swimmers who have not travelled the well-worn path of other Olympic medal-winning South African swimmers who polished their skills at universities in the United States.

Van der Burgh is studying at the University of Pretoria and Le Clos lives in Durban, where he is trained by Graham Hill, head coach for the South African Olympic team.

But will their success mean that more swimmers will opt to build their careers in South Africa rather than plying their trade overseas?

It could all come down to a question of funding. The South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) has established the operation excellence programme to provide financial aid to athletes whom they consider to be medal hopes.

In 2011 Van der Burgh received R681 350 from the programme, according to a Sascoc report, and Le Clos was awarded R611 210.

The elite athletes
The problem is that the funding is granted only to the elite athletes the committee believes are serious  medal contenders.

Dean Price, Swimming South Africa's high-performance manager, is aware of the problem and is hoping to secure more funding to build up the organisation's base of top swimmers.

"The support from Sascoc has been great, but it only deals with the guys that are there already," Price said. "We have spoken with Sascoc about the need for another tier of 16 to 20 swimmers so that development takes place to get the next Chad or Cameron up there. There has to be a two-tier system because we have phenomenal talent."

Price said he understood the need for some South African swimmers to pursue careers at US universities, but he would prefer to keep the top athletes at home.

"The first choice for us is that the swimmers stay at home. Every top swimmer from around the world comes from a home programme, so a home-based programme is ideal.

"We are not a major sport like rugby or cricket, but if we can get the support we can expand our pool of swimmers.

"The key to success is to have a support staff that backs you, especially when you are a bit down. That is one of the problems with swimming in the States – that you don't have a support team and a lot of swimmers fade into oblivion," he said.

But Penny Heyns, who won two swimming gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Games and attended the University of Nebraska, said that swimming in the US meant more opportunities for more South African swimmers.

"A lot has been said about the fact that Chad and Cameron are home-grown swimmers, but I am concerned that the message is going to be that everyone should stay home. Not everyone can be trained by Graham Hill, or receive the level of support that Chad and Cameron get.

"We still don't have a system like the US for the upcoming swimmers. Staying at home worked for Chad, but where do the upcoming swimmers go if they are not one of the top swimmers?"

Heyns said that the standard of competition in the US collegiate system could only be a boost for potential Olympians.

"There are a lot of top swimmers from around the world swimming there. You are competing twice a week and the level of competition is unmatched. The coaches there have an expectation that you have to step up, and that gives you a mental edge we are only starting to develop here," she said.

 Price said the support afforded to Van der Burgh and Le Clos showed that South Africa was capable of competing with the world's best in the pool. He pointed out France's recent success – the French had won three gold and two silver medals in the pool by Tuesday.

"It [Van der Burgh's and Le Clos's success] shows that we are as good as anybody else and it gives us a strong belief that we can do it against the best. We have unbelievable talent in this country and we have had support for our elite swimmers for the last three years. At this level you have to give support and it shows that we have the ability to produce top swimmers," he said.

South Africa's success in the pool at the 2012 Games has created a feel-good factor that can be equated to the excitement generated by South Africa's 4x100m gold medal-winning team at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Heyns said Van der Burgh and Le Clos could play a major role in helping to raise swimming's profile in South Africa and generate a lot of excitement, but only if they were "used correctly in future plans".

Price said it was important to build on the success in London by improving facilities and increasing funding for South African swimmers. "Top-class facilities are a key factor, as is a support structure for the raw talent we have, which is potentially phenomenal," he said.

SA's third gold
In Thursday's action, the lightweight four men's rowing team secured a surprise gold medal, pushing South Africa back up the table as the country ended the sixth day of the London Olympic Games in tied 10th position.

Sizwe Ndlovu, Matthew Brittain, John Smith and James Thompson secured the country's third gold medal of the Games.

The South Africans started conservatively, going through the 500 metres mark in third place, and dropped back to fourth by the 1 500m mark.

Over the last 500m stretch they fought back and passed hosts Great Britain, Australia and Denmark to clinch gold in six minutes, 02.84 seconds (6:02.84).

Source: London2012

Specialist stroke
Meanwhile, Le Clos coasted into the men's 100m butterfly final.

He won the second semifinal over the shorter distance in 51.42 seconds, qualifying second fastest for Friday night's final.

Phelps won the first semi-final in 50.86.

The 20-year-old South African had posted the fastest qualifying time (51.54) in the morning heats, after withdrawing from the 200m individual medley final to focus on his specialist stroke.

Suzaan van Biljon faded in the second half of the women's 200m breaststroke final to finish in seventh position.

Van Biljon went out hard and led the race after the first length, but she fell back in the last 100m, clocking two minutes, 23.72 second (2:23.72).

American Rebecca Soni broke the world record, setting a time of 2:19.59 to secure the gold medal.

Van Biljon had broken Heyns' 13-year-old South African record in Wednesday's semifinal, touching the wall in 2:23.21.

Brave fight
Veteran sprinter Roland Schoeman sneaked through to the men's 50m freestyle final, finishing fourth in the first semifinal in 21.88 seconds to qualify tied seventh fastest.

Schoeman, the bronze medallist in the short sprint at the 2004 Games in Athens, will compete in the final on Friday evening.

Countryman Gideon Louw narrowly missed out, taking fifth place in the second semi-final in 21.92 and falling 0.04 seconds short of a place in the final.

Karin Prinsloo also missed out on a final place, finishing eighth and last in the second semifinal of the women's 200m backstroke in 2:11.42.

Prinsloo had progressed to the penultimate round by finishing fifth in her heat in the morning session and qualifying 13th fastest.

Earlier, Wendy Trott failed in her bid to qualify for the women's 800m freestyle final, finishing fourth in her heat in 8:28:98.

Elsewhere, the national women's hockey team put up a brave fight but went down 2-0 against Germany in their third match of the tournament.

Struggled home
The result left the South African women lying bottom of Group B – the only team without a point – with two games left to play.

South Africa face Australia in their next match on Saturday.

Youngster Alistair Davis missed out on a place in the men's double trap shooting final, finishing 15th of 23 shooters in the qualifying round as his Olympic campaign came to an end.

The South Africa sailing duo of Roger Hudson and Asenathi Jim were left trailing in second-last position after the first two races of the men's 470 event.

They finished 20th in the first race of the competition but struggled home in last place, of 27 boats, in the second race.

The third and fourth 470 races will be held on Friday. – Additional reporting by Sapa