As we stood in the Steve Parry bar at the Main Press Centre last night and watched the replay of Cameron van der Burgh winning gold and the hearts of the nation on the telly, it hit us that South Africa were above Great Britain in the medals table. Hooray, we shouted, and ordered another drink.
Then they showed it again, and we ordered more drinks. It was that sort of a night after the most intense of days. It was hard on days like Sunday to keep the story at an arm’s length, to remain impartial and sift through it for signs of fragility as well as revel in the glory of it, but that is near impossible to do when you are dealing with a man as personable and as imminently likeable as Cameron van der Burgh. So, on Sunday, we sang his praises, we toasted his name, we said words that began in “f” a lot and used them in sentences featuring the word “awesome”. The Australian girl behind the bar said she’d never seen people so happy that they had fixed the beer draft machine.
We told her that we were South African and that Cameron van der Burgh had done our small nation proud. She told us she was from nation with a smaller population. We cheered and ordered more beer. Hooray for horny South Africans and their tendency to produce babies the way Australians produce gold medal winners. We were also on our fourth beers and it was almost closing time. Beer is a vital part of covering the Olympics. It’s a necessity. The rush, the buzz, the pressure and the stress of filing on deadlines so tight that you can hear the tapping of the fingers of impatient subs and news editors sitting thousands of miles away waiting for your copy. Sunday night may just have been the toughest night of my life as a journalist (and here a disclaimer – I often tell young journalists not to write about the problems they have with their jobs, but as this is my column, I hereby rescind that order. For now. Don’t do as I do, do as I say). One deadline, and three stories to file, and 10 minutes to file all three stories – two pieces for up front of 600 words each, and one back page of 800 words.
It would be physically impossible to do all of that in 10 minutes, so in the two hours before Van der Burgh swam, I pre-wrote most of the pieces. I scoured old quotes, worked in back stories not yet told and then filled up the spaces with hope. Thirty minutes before his race, I had already all but proclaimed Van der Burgh as winner. I kept changing copy. “Gold medal” was changed to just “medal”, and then back again. The Cape Argus was holding their front page, as was The Star and the Pretoria News, who had the tightest deadline of all. Down in Durban the Mercury cast anxious glances at clock and their emails. So, too, at the Cape Times. Deadlines were being stretched. So were my nerves. It was squeaky bum time.
At 9.11pm South African time, Van der Burgh raced. Karien Jonckheere, a former colleague at The Star and now writing for the Olympics organisers was with me in the venue press centre. She had covered the Awesome Foursome for us in Athens and knows her swimming. Van der Burgh went out hard. “He’s flying,” she said. “Christ,” I said. He turned and powered back. With 25-metres to go, Karien called it. “He’s won! He’s done it! Look at the gap!” Van der Burgh touched the wall. I checked the time, watched his celebration and began filling in the spaces, writing the words I had hoped to. Three different intros on three very different stories, but all about the same man, the same event and the same glorious outcome. They were all filed withing 15 minutes of him touching the wall.
I ran down to the mixed zone and caught Van der Burgh. We shook hands and hugged. My phone alerted me to an email from Gasant Abarder of the Cape Argus, who had sent a picture of his front page, which had Van der Burgh lying on the lane ropes. I showed it to him and his face lit up. “Heck, Kev, that was quick.” Perhaps. But not as quick as you