Team SA set for one last farewell


South Africa's Olympic team were preparing for one final send-off from the public on Thursday afternoon after a week of farewell wishes.

The majority of the 125-member team, which will compete in 17 sports, were given an official send-off by the SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) on Wednesday night. Last week President Jacob Zuma gave them a speech.

Speaking at the gala dinner in Sandton on Wednesday, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula again called for a 12-medal haul, reminding the team of the lofty goal set by the SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc).

If they could not bag 12 medals in the English capital, Mbalula said it was important to ensure that goal was attainable in future.

"We are going to London and we are hoping to collect 12 medals, but even if we don't come home with 12, we are looking beyond London," Mbalula said.

"In the next 20 years, when we talk about 12, we will have no doubt in our minds."

Zuma said last week the government backed Sascoc's lofty target, in an attempt to turn the tables after a poor performance at the 2008 Beijing Games, where the country earned one silver medal.

"We will be behind you as a nation, waving our beautiful rainbow flag at every available moment," Zuma told the team at the presidential send-off.

"We want at least 12 medals, not less."

In the build-up to their departure, most of the team members were kept in a holding camp at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria, though the aquatics squad and some track and field athletes had already gone to Europe.

Those in Pretoria sat through motivational talks and took part in team-building exercises. On Wednesday they joined in the festivities around former president Nelson Mandela's 94th birthday.

While most made it clear that medals would be counted, Sam Ramsamy, a member of the International Olympic Committee and former president of South Africa's Olympic governing body, gave the team some encouraging words.

Recounting a conversation he once had with 1996 Olympic marathon champion Josiah Thugwane, Ramsamy said the athletes could be given all the help they wanted, but it was up to them to overcome the challenges they faced against the world's top sports stars.

"People can give you all the resources you need," Ramsamy told the team, "but nobody can give you heart, determination, and guts".

The national women's football team, Banyana Banyana, will be the first to compete in London when they square up against Sweden in their opening match on July 25 -- two days before the official start of the Games.

Middle-distance runner Caster Semenya will carry the South African flag at the July 27 opening ceremony.

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