/ 14 August 2012

Team SA get a royal welcome home

South Africa's Olympics medallists were greeted by hundreds of supporters when they arrived at OR Tambo International Airport on Tuesday.
South Africa's Olympics medallists were greeted by hundreds of supporters when they arrived at OR Tambo International Airport on Tuesday.

Medallists, 800m runner Caster Semenya and canoeist Bridgitte Hartley stood in front of Madikizela-Mandela as supporters used their cellphones to take photographs of the celebrities on Tuesday morning.

The crowd of supporters that gathered at the airport sang the national anthem for the athletes, who stood in a line with their hands over their chests.

A loud cheer, whistles and vuvuzela blasts followed.

Earlier in the morning gold medal swimmer Chad le Clos whipped the crowd into a frenzy when he introduced his fellow medallists.

"Let's welcome the athletes home," he said.

Le Clos and fellow medal winning swimmer Cameron van der Burgh had many screaming their names amid the ululating and toyi-toying masses.

'I tried my best'
Semenya hit back on Tuesday at criticism of the tactics which resulted in her winning a silver medal in her 800m final.

There was speculation that Semenya did not go all out to win the race.

"[There is] nothing much I can say. I tried my best and I won a silver," Semenya told reporters.

Semenya said people who questioned her motivation lacked knowledge about the sport.

"So whatever people are saying, they always talk, they know nothing about athletics … They just watch us running, they don't know what we're going through, so ja, I tried my best."

Semenya's medal was the first for South Africa in a track event since Mbulaeni Mulaudzi's silver at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.

Despite her individual success, she was disappointed at being the only member of the track team to finish in a podium spot.

"For me, I'm a little disappointed about the results. We had a strong team so we were expecting at least another four medals, but at least we have a silver."

Minister Mbalula highlighted her performance.

"When you were running there our hearts nearly stopped. We don't [know] what your strategy was … Caster represents the greatest guts for women. It doesn't matter where you come from, you represent a symbol of [a] courageous woman in South Africa."

Eager supporters
Before the athletes made their appearance on Tuesday morning thousands of people waved flags and pressed against the security cordons, while two decks up into the arrivals hall people watched from above.

The Mafikeng local municipality erected a massive banner welcoming back marathon runner Stephen Mokoka, who ended 43rd in a tough race. His supporters wore specially made T-shirts – and had one mounted in an ornate gold-coloured frame.

Crawford College Sandton pupils chanted school war cries when they were not singing Shosholoza, and "welcome home" posters made by media houses got trampled underfoot.

"To know that someone from our school could go on to win a gold in the Olympics is like, wow," said one girl about gold-medal winning rower Matthew Brittain.

"I love Caster," shouted Agnes Makena from Tembisa, through an enormous curly wig in the colours of the South African flag.

South Africa was the highest placed African nation on the Games medals table, in 24th position with six medals – three gold, two silver and one bronze.

Semenya won silver in the women's 800m, Hartley won bronze in the women's kayak single K-1 500m sprint and rowers Sizwe Ndlovu, Matthew Brittain, John Smith and James Thompson won gold in the men's lightweight four.

Le Clos won gold in the men's 200m butterfly and Van der Burgh in the men's 100m breaststroke, setting a new world record. Le Clos also won silver when he tied for second in the 100m butterfly.

'Very inspiring'
Rower Arnold Mathapa held up a banner made of paddles to welcome his fellow rowers home.

"I train with them and I know what it's like for them – it's very inspiring," he said.

Government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi said on Tuesday morning that the country was proud of the returning team.

"We join the multitudes of sport enthusiasts in congratulating our athletes for their best performance and grit at the games," he said in a statement.

"Team SA has emerged as shining stars and are now exemplary to those who want to achieve greatness. Government hopes that these achievements will inspire our local youth to follow in their steps and realise South Africa's dreams."

Manyi encouraged the country to honour the team by wearing the national sporting colours. – Sapa