Olympic-sized memories

2008-08-08 12:11

London - South Africa's largest medal haul at the Olympic Games came way back in 1920. That year the South Africa team brought home 20 medals.

In 1952 we managed 16 medals, but since those glory days it's been slim pickings at the world's greatest gathering of athletes.

In 1992 we scraped together three medals, in 1996 Team SA managed six, 2000 brought five and the last time around in Athens our athletic finest brought home six medals (one gold, three silver and two bronze).

Despite the paltry medal count at the last few Olympic events, South Africans have still managed to set the scene alight with remarkable, often unexpected performances.

No sports fan will ever forget the manic celebrations of the men's 100m freestyle relay team in 2004, South Africa's first Olympic medals after readmission in 1992 or Penny Heyns striking double gold in Atlanta.

With the Olympic Flame of Beijing 2008 set to burn brightly from August 8, SA Sport looks back at South Africa's finest moments of modern Olympic glory.

2004: Gold, Athens, Men's 4x100m freestyle relay team

Roland Schoeman, Ryk Neethling, Lyndon Ferns and Darian Townsend smashed the field (pool rather) and the record books in winning South Africa's first Olympic gold since 1996. In a time of just over three minutes and 17 seconds, the pumped-up relay team set a new world record and nailed South Africa's fourth gold medal since readmission. The unexpected joy was evident on the faces of the swimmers as they fist pumped the air, flexed their first-placed muscles and looked around in stunned disbelief, they were the celebrations of men completely overjoyed by their success. After the victory The Star reported how the South Africans had remained low key throughout the build-up to the race. "Written off earlier in the event by the Australians, who finished sixth, and the Americans, South Africa gave a glimpse of what they were capable of in the morning's heats, missing the world record by 0.17 seconds," wrote Kevin McCallum at the time. During the week the American team had been trash-talking the South Africans, telling them how badly they would get beaten come race day. But the heat race ruffled the American's feathers and forced them into making three changes for the final. In the end, South Africa's proof was in the first-placed pudding, while America had to be content with a third-place finish.

1992: Silver, Barcelona, Elana Meyer

Elana Meyer, who now runs for fun but still manages to cruise around a half-marathon circuit without breaking a sweat, has held South African records for almost every distance in track and road events. She's set world records over 5km, 15km and half-marathon (21.1km) distances, so it was no surprise that Meyer was South Africa's best hope for a medal at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona. South Africa had not taken part in the Games since 1960 due to sporting sanctions and Meyer, competing in the 10 000m race, was set to signal the country's return to Olympic competition. Derartu Tulu from Ethiopia, had other ideas, though. In the final lap of the 10 000m race Tulu slipped in front of Meyer and held on to win. At the finish line, Tulu, the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal, waited for Meyer and together they set off hand in hand for a victory lap that symbolised a new era of African unity. Meyer, often described as South Africa's best female athlete ever, hung up her competitive takkies in 2005. At the time of her retirement she was still the only South African athlete to have won an Olympic silver medal on the track, a world title on the road and also to have set world records on the road. To date she still holds the SA track records for 3 000m, 5 000m, 10 000m and SA road records for 10, 15, 21.1km, as well as being the country's fastest female marathoner.

1996: Gold, Atlanta, Josiah Thugwane

Mike Finch, editor of Runner's World SA was at the 1996 Olympic Games. He rates Elana's 1992 silver highly, but remembers a single moment during the 1996 Games marathon when South Africa seemed set for a one, two, three finish. "Perhaps our most memorable Olympic moment was when the three South African runners broke clear from the field at 28km in Atlanta," says Finch. "The three runners - Lawrence Peu, Gert Thys and Josiah Thugwane - were all leading the world's best. I later spoke to Dionicio Ceron (the Mexican marathon runner) after the race who said that if the SA runners had just put their heads down and not got scared they would have taken all three medals. I was there in the stadium and I had goose bumps. It was better than Thugwane actually winning." Thugwane won a gruelling race, one that began at 07:00 because of the extreme heat in Atlanta at the time (the Olympic marathon normally starts at dusk), in 2:12.36. It was one of the closest Olympic marathon finishes ever with the second-placed Lee Bong Ju of South Korea reaching the line only three seconds behind Thugwane. The man from KwaGuqa in Mpumalanga became the first black South African to win an Olympic gold. He dedicated his win to South Africa and Nelson Mandela. "I won the medal for my country," he said after his historic win. "I won the medal for my president." Today the diminutive runner (he stands at only five foot and two inches) trains prospective running stars in Johannesburg.

1996: Double Gold, Atlanta, Penny Heyns

When Penny Heyns, the girl who put Amanzimtoti on the map, retired in 2000 she left behind a string of impressive records. During her career in the pool she set 14 world records and become the only woman in history to complete the Olympic double of winning both the 100m and 200m breaststroke. By winning gold in 1996 she became the first South African gold-medallist at the Olympics for 44 years and at one stage she held five out of the six possible individual breaststroke records. As a 17 year-old Heyns went to the Barcelona Games, more as a developmental athlete than a medal hopeful, where she finished 33rd in the 100m breaststroke. After the 1992 Olympics she attended the University of Nebraska where her times rapidly improved, culminating in a world record time for the 100m breaststroke in 1996 during South Africa's Olympic trials. Now retired for eight years, Heyns is a motivational speaker spreading her wisdom across South Africa and in countries like the US, Sri Lanka, Canada and Australia.

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