Olympic speculations

2008-08-08 00:00

“Records can be broken at any time, but you are an Olympic champion for four years, but four years changes a lot,” said Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, this week.

That is certainly the case when trying to pick potential medals for the 2008 Beijing Olympics among the 137-member South African team.

Although this will be the largest team sent to an Olympics since the country’s return from sporting isolation, matching the Athens achievement of one gold, three silver and two bronze could be a tough call — however, that’s the target set by Chef de Mission Hajera Kajee.

“We believe we can better the medal count from Athens, but will be content to match it,” she says. “Last time, the medals came from swimming, athletics and rowing — we believe we will see other opportunities in canoeing, BMX and sailing.”

In Athens, it was the swimmers combination of Roland Schoeman, Ryk Neethling, Darian Townsend, and Lyndon Ferns that created the momentum, with gold in the 4x100 m freestyle in world record time.

If the grapevine is to be believed on a highly classified swim-off, then Pietermaritzburg-raised Townsend has probably swum his way into the final selection, raising the prospect of the same quartet taking to the water in tomorrow’s first round.

However, as Bolt said, four years changes a lot. The Americans reduced the world record to 3:12.46 in 2006, and individually the SA quartet have lower rankings than prior to Athens.

On the other hand, Townsend reportedly swam the best time of his life in the Korea shootout for places. If they are all as motivated, the medal is a possibility.

Swimsuit technology is another factor to distort all other reasonable predictability.

It is not clear which suit each swimmer will choose, and although some team members have received the new Arena suit, which has yet to be tested in competition, the lateness of the ruling allowing them free reign to use the almost legendary Speedo LZR means any change will only be undertaken over the next two days.

Individually the best medal hopes lie with Schoeman in the 50 m freestyle, where he won bronze in Athens.

Jean Basson (200 m freestyle) is the highest-ranked SA swimmer and certainly worthy of medal consideration, while Susan van Biljon (200 m breaststroke) is the top contender amongst the women. Other prospects lie with Ferns or Neethling pulling something out of the 100 m freestyle and Cameron van der Burgh in the breaststroke. Van der Burgh was third in the world 50 m championships.

Athletics has been the other sport to provide a source of past medals and world number three Mbulaeni Mulaudzi leads SA’s hopes. Performances on the European circuit indicate he is reaching a peak and with more tactical nous than he had in Athens, he should be on the podium.

The 400 m hurdlers, Alwyn Myburgh and L.J. van Zyl, are capable of reaching the final, where anything can happen.

In the field events, World Indoor champion long jumper Khotso Mokeona should return a medal, providing he can continue to manage a niggling knee injury.

Debatably, the most exciting prospect lies with young Robert Oosthuizen in the javelin, who threw his way to sixth at the World Championship final. Justine Robbeson’s recent 63,49 m puts her back on top of her game.

Elizna Naude, who has thrown much further in training than competition, has an outside chance of a medal in the Discus, and feels drug testing and the retirement of previous world championship medallists could make this the fairest competition for many years.

Rower Ramon di Clemente, at his third Olympics, has set his sights on taking new young partner Shaun Keeling to a repeat of the men’s pairs bronze he won in Athens. Although the combination disappointed early on, Di Clemente’s move to stroke has brought on steady progression.

BMX is a new addition at Beijing, where Johannesburg-based Sifiso Nlapho is tipped for a medal.

Nlapho finished third in the World Championships and is currently ranked eighth in the world. MTB champ Burry Stander, from Port Shepstone, is currently lying third in the World Cup series.

A useful team of David George, Robbie Hunter and John-lee Augustyn provide an interesting combination for the 283 km road cycle. Augustyn rose to fame with his breakaway mountain-climbing in the Tour de France.

A setback to the medal stakes came on Thursday night with triathlete Hendrik de Villiers’s withdrawal due to illness.

The canoeists arrived in Beijing on Thursday from training with some of the world’s elite in Hungary. Shaun Rubenstein is the leading hope, with two sixth places and a seventh in the World Cup this year. He is certainly a contender for the 500 m and 1 000 m flatwater races.

Britain’s Tim Brabants and Canadian Adam van Koeverden are the current world 1 000 m and 500 m champions respectively. Said Rubenstein: “They [Brabants and Van Koeverden] are just human like me. I really don’t have any fear of them.”

Jen Hodson, with a fifth ranking in the World Cup series, should be a finalist in the 500 m K1.

On paper, SA have the potential to match the Athens medal collection, but the Olympics have a habit of shutting down ambition and throwing up the unexpected.

•Norrie Williamson’s air flights sponsored by Allday EnerGIFoods: Constant Carbs are Key. www.energifoods.co.za

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