SA hopes high for London Games

2009-08-25 00:00

LOOKING back on the 12th IAAF World Athletics Championships in Berlin, the records will show that South Africa went home with two gold medals and one silver, the same number and colour as in Paris in 2003. This placed the team ninth on the medal table ahead of Australia, and China and directly behind Great Britain.

However, when points are allocated for each medal and top eight finish, South Africa drops back to 18th place, highlighting the need for greater depth. It’s hard to win medals if you don’t have finalists and it is no coincidence that the top eight medal-winning countries are also the top eight point scorers, albeit in a different order.

As with the competitions, there is much more to that result than the paper it is written on.

Appraising the class of 2009 brings with it major highs and equally devastating lows, but concurrently this year’s championships marked a turning point in the preparation method that now has clear direction towards the London 2012 Olympics.

In addition to the gold medals from Caster Semenya and Mbulaeni Mulaudzi in the 800 metre events, Ruben Ramolefi spectacularly raced himself into the final of the steeplechase, where limited tactical options left him high and dry. Between them, the remaining 10 track athletes produced three semi-finalists and two sprint quarter-finalists, while the others failed to get through their opening rounds.

Of the six field event athletes, only silver medallist Godfrey Mokoena made it past the qualifying rounds when it was not unreasonable to expect at least another two finalists. However, field events are notoriously and naturally fickle, particularly with the reduction of the qualifying rounds to three trials making it even harder to come to terms with the competition conditions.

It’s a phenomenon that saw both defending world long jump champion Irving Saldino and legendary pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva edged from their competition in the early stages.

Decathlete Willem Coertzen not only added another 95 points to the SA record, but also posted six personal bests in the gruelling 10-discipline, two-day event.

The marathon squad proved to be another success of the championships and silenced detractors of their training camp by punching well above their fighting weight to finish fifth in the team completion, as opposed to their pre-race ranking somewhere just outside the top 15.

In addition, the men’s 12th, 17th and 22nd individual finishes are the best by South Africans since 2003 when that team won the bronze in Paris.

Tanith Maxwell went into the women’s marathon as 64th-fastest and emerged through the Brandenburg Gate at the other end 45th overall. These are all performances that must have Enos Matalane, Lusapho April and coach Karen Zimmerman lamenting their departure from the camp as both athletes could have been assets to the team.

If Caster Semenya winning the women’s 800 m gold medal on Wednesday night was a South Africa high, then it was equally the deepest low of the championship and the sport of athletics. That there is a definition of gender in the IAAF rules is not in question, but the manner in which the question was raised, the timing and apparent overlooking of investigation at previous world stage levels, and the public persecution of the 18-year-old must surely have the sport and international media hanging its head in shame.

The rule needs to be put into perspective in that it determines which competitors are deemed to be on an equal playing field in terms of physical and psychological strengths and weaknesses. Who and how those definitions were determined, and their accuracy, have relevance only in the realm of fair competition in one particular sport. They must not be allowed to taint and impact outside of that environment.

If energy is to be expended on this matter while an outcome is awaited, it should be on three aspects only: determining why the subject was not quietly investigated at the previous international level of competition; how to prevent any such reocurrence; and ensuring that, irrespective of outcome, this woman is given back the pride and respect that she is entitled to as a human being.

The situation gave rise to a media feeding frenzy not unlike sharks at an open wound, potentially destroying a young girl with a barrage of unnecessarily destructive base level questions and suggestions. Such reaction gives credence to questioning the normally cherished value of freedom of the press.

The combination of Semenya’s medal and the tangible team spirit saw South Africa return to the fray on Thursday with their most positive and successful day. Having witnessed the past three championships there is no question that this squad has a new air and attitude about them. Building for the future and long-term planning is no more rhetoric to explain away poor performances. It is something visible in the eyes and emotions, particularly of the newcomers such as Simon Makagwe.

The young sprinter has clearly benefited from ASA sending him to train with Usain Bolt and coach Mills.

All this aside, perhaps one of the greatest positives that the South African team packed when leaving Berlin last night is that the class of 2009 are in the first of their four year build-up to the Olympic Games, whereas the much-lauded 2003 Championship medal haul was achieved with only 12 months to the Athens Games.

Both Mulaudzi and Mokoena are graduates of the 2005 and 2007 schools, highlighting the long-term progression that typically goes into medal production.

If the current training camps and support can be sustained, refined and expanded there is every reason to believe that athletics will continue to bring back medals and London 2012 will deliver more than Mokoena’s solitary silver of Beijing.

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