SA warms up for Caster Semenya’s Olympic debut

Update: Caster Semenya qualified for the 800m semifinals after coming second in her heat in a time of 2:00.71. Full story to follow.

With three gold medals and one silver in London so far, we’ve almost equalled our best-ever Olympic haul – four gold and two silver medals at the Stockholm Games a century ago, in 1912.

But with five days of competition left there is a chance for even further honours on the track with Caster Semenya, sprinter Anaso Jobodwana and of course Oscar Pistorius and his fellow 4x400m relay athletes. SA javelin star Sunette Viljoen is also in the spotlight on Wednesday, while Sifiso Nhlapo begins his campaign on the BMX track, and back in the water canoeist Bridgette Hartley will also have chance to stick her oar in.

The heat is on
Semenya will on Wednesday attempt to silence her critics as she makes her Olympic debut in the 800m qualifying heats.

It's been nearly three years since her astonishing victory in the 2009 Berlin World Championships, which turned from a dream win into a nightmare, as she was forced to undergo a series of drug and gender tests after that victory and subsequent performances were questioned by officials, athletes and an often unsympathetic public.

She was kept from competing for almost a year before being cleared for competition, only to have her comeback hampered by a niggling back injury.

The 21-year-old is now being coached by Maria Mutola of Mozambique, the 800m champion who won gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and is confident ahead of competition, and is not interested in dwelling on the past.

"You need to concentrate on the future. I don't have to entertain those [setbacks] now. I can concentrate on my running, that's all," Semenya told AFP recently.

"That's what I have to learn. I have to act professionally. But this is my first Olympics so it'll be special for me."

It won’t be plain sailing for Semenya, however, who will be competing against her nemesis, Kenyan Pamela Jelimo – the defending Olympic champion who has on five separate occasions beaten Semenya’s best time of the season, 1:59.18.

Olympic throwdown
Another medal hopeful to watch out for is Sunette Viljoen, who on Tuesday qualified in third place for Wednesday evening’s javelin finals, with a throw of 65.92m.

After winning a bronze medal at the World Championships in 2011, she is a favourite to land a spot on the podium for Team South Africa. She faces stiff competition from Czech Barbora Spotakova, the gold medallist at the 2008 Olympic Games and Germany's Christina Obergfoll, who took bronze in Beijing.

In the canoe sprint, Bridgette Hartley could spring a surprise medal after she qualified first in her semifinal in the K1 500m single women heats in Eton Dorney on Tuesday with a time of 1:51.286. It was an improved performance on her qualification heat, in which she finished second in 1:53.051, that will see her through to Thursday’s final in the event.

A rank outsider for a medal in London but someone to watch for the future is Anaso Jobodwana, who finished second in Tuesday’s men's 200m heats, clocking 20.46 seconds.

There's little hope of him challenging 100m world record holder and gold medallist Usain Bolt, who qualified in 20.39 in the first heat of the day, but the opportunity to see Jobodwana line up next to Bolt in Wednesday's semifinal should fill all South Africans with a sense of pride. Need we remind everyone what Chad le Clos did to Michael Phelps in the pool a week ago?

Sifiso Nhlapo (Gallo)BMX bandit
Away from the Olympic Stadium, South African and All African BMX champion Sifiso Nhlapo will be hoping to make up for his unfortunate showing at the 2008 Games.

As a 21-year-old rookie, Nhlapo was involved in a massive pile-up in the BMX final in Beijing and crashed out after being tipped for a podium finish at the start.

Nhlapo begins his campaign on Wednesday in the BMW seeding run, with the semifinal on Thursday and final on Friday.

One also shouldn’t count out the chances of the 4x400m relay team, who finished in second place at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, breaking the South African record for the fastest time in the process.

The team, consisting of double amputee Oscar Pistorius, LJ van Zyl, Shaun de Jager, Ofentse Mogawane, Cornel Fredericks and Willie de Beer will take part in the qualification heats on Thursday afternoon, with the final due to take place on Friday evening.

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