Nhlapo’s last fling for Beijing BMX spot

2008-05-30 00:00

Sifiso Nhlapo’s last BMX race on May 4 ended prematurely, as he crashed out of the final round of the European Championships and spent the night in hospital recovering from serious concussion.

His next race, today at the 2008 World Championships in Taiyuan, China, will determine whether or not he qualifies to race at the Beijing Olympic Games.

For more than three years, Nhlapo, a 21-year-old from Alberton, just south of Johannesburg, has been doggedly chasing his Olympic dream. The chase has been tough, physically, emotionally and financially, and may end today if Nhlapo fails to reach at least the quarter-finals. That’s his minimum requirement, but don’t be surprised to see South Africa’s top BMX racer go further with an historic start in the final not out of the question.

Nhlapo has spent the past eight months blazing a pioneering trail across Europe, disrupting the status quo, toppling the French, Dutch and Latvian BMX powerhouse nations to win three rounds and finish second overall in the 2008 European Championships, the world’s most competitive series.

His bright yellow MTN-branded kit became a familiar sight at Europe’s biggest races, as he reached the final in 10 of the 11 rounds he contested (only eight riders contest a final) — a record unmatched by any of the Europeans, including a number of former world champions.

Nhlapo is currently ranked second in Europe and 12th in the world.

“It’s a bit nerve wracking having all this pressure on one event, especially when you consider that one mistake in qualifying can lead to major disappointment,” said Nhlapo after completing a practice session.

“But my form is really good and I have recovered fully from my crash so am completely focused. I have also beaten many of the top guys since the 2007 World Champs, so that’s a confidence booster.”

Nhlapo is the first South African and African to compete at the highest level in BMX racing and he’s determined to ensure his success, whether he qualifies for the Beijing Games or not, opens the door for other South African BMX racers to compete internationally. He’s also committed to using his status as a role model to inspire the South African youth to spend more time exercising by riding bicycles.

“I only started racing BMX a few years ago after watching a friend racing. We need more BMX tracks in South Africa to give more kids the opportunity to try a sport that is fast, fun and cool,” he says.

Today , Nhlapo will be up against not only his familiar European rivals, but also the Americans, comfortably the world’s strongest BMX nation, the Australians, currently ranked at number two behind the U.S., and the South Americans, who are a consistent podium threat.

The top 11-ranked nations after the world championships get at least one confirmed place in the 32-rider men’s field in Beijing. Frustratingly, South Africa is ranked 12th, too far behind Ecuador to make a bid for the 11th spot.

However, because of his high world ranking, Nhlapo has been given the chance to snap up one of the six wild card places on offer by reaching the final 32 this weekend.

His qualification to race at the Games would no doubt please the International Cycling Union and the International Olympic Committee, both organisations making a big effort to encourage sports development from African nations in an effort to achieve true globalisation.

With youth on his side, Nhlapo still has at least two more Olympic Games to aim for. But for now, his sights are firmly set on qualifying for Beijing.

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