Can SA go the distance at Rio Olympics?

South Africa's hopes for a medal in middle distance in Rio rest on the likes of 800m specialist André Olivier  PHOTO: Barry Aldworth / BackpagePix
South Africa's hopes for a medal in middle distance in Rio rest on the likes of 800m specialist André Olivier PHOTO: Barry Aldworth / BackpagePix

With six Olympic and World Championships medals between them, accomplished middle-distance runners the late Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, Hezekiel Sepeng and Elana Meyer now seem like reminders of a bygone era.

Outside of this group, Caster Semenya has proven to be the country’s most realistic medal certainty when it comes to the middle-distance hopefuls.

Renowned local middle- and long-distance coaches remain optimistic, though, amid a sense of decline in fortunes in the discipline where stamina meets speed.

Coaches Michael “Sponge” Seme, Jean Verster, DB Prinsloo and Ian Harries speak with authority on local athletics – they have guided a number of the country’s athletes to significant medals over the past few years.

This group maintains South Africa will be among the middle-distance medallists at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in August.

Seme plotted Semenya’s gold medals at the Berlin world championships in Germany in 2009, and the IAAF-accredited mentor believes her former charge is still capable of a podium finish.

“We’ll be in the mix for medals in the middle distance,” said Seme, despite his trump card, Stephen Mokoka, going for the Olympic marathon instead of the 10 000m.

Mokoka competed in the distance at the global championships in Beijing, China, last year but fared badly in the race. Britain’s Mo Farah easily defended his title.

Verster’s charge, Elroy Gelant, remains South Africa’s hope to contest the 10km in Brazil.

“There is a lot of talent across the 800m, 1 500m and 10 000m, but preparation is key to get the guys in the finals [in their respective events],” said Verster.

He coaches Olympic medallists Semenya and Nijel Amos of Botswana, as well as 2014 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist André Olivier, among the accomplished runners in his stable.

“It is not going to be easy, because the problem is every coach has to plan for himself, as there is no support from Athletics SA and Sascoc [the SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee] for our top-class athletes,” says Verster.

Prinsloo, who guides 2013 world champs bronze medallist Johan Cronje, believes his charge possesses the much-needed experience to ward off the challenge of the east African runners in the taxing 1 500m.

Cronje was South Africa’s sole medallist at the Moscow 2013 World Championships in Russia.

“I am optimistic about our chances in Rio because Johan is an experienced runner who can hold on in three races over five days. He struggled in Beijing [at the world championships] with a groin injury, but he underwent an operation afterwards.”

Prinsloo believes South Africa can always look at the youth for answers in future, but the emerging talent is still a work in progress.

“Young athletes need the opportunity to develop and acquire experience. But there is a vacuum between their level and the senior ranks.”

Young prospects include last year’s World Student Games 800m bronze medallist Reinhardt van Rensburg, who broke into the international senior stage at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing in August.

Van Rensburg (23) has always shown potential, but injuries interrupted his progress when he was on track to match Mulaudzi and Olivier on the domestic front.

Harries, who has coached leading South African athletes over the past two decades, including Mulaudzi, was more critical.

“It doesn’t look good, because there has not been consistency from the main prospects, such as Johan [Cronje] and André [Olivier] ... and no other names come to mind.

“Maybe we are talking at the wrong time; six weeks or two months from now can tell, from a statistical point of view, how the guys are shaping up.”

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