Despite all appearances, Tim Noakes is not a low-carb, high-fat man. He’s more a low-bass, high-beat man. He is less the lore of running, more about the gore of drumming. He doesn’t have much time for South African runners. Not on a Thursday morning. Not when he lives in London town and there is another man called Professor Tim Noakes giving a talk at a health and wellness summit in Johannesburg.
For Tim Noakes, as his Twitter bio states, “is not a South African sports professor. Well, @ProfTimNoakes is, but I’m not. Sorry. I’m the Editor-in-Chief of @DazedMagazine”. Dazed magazine used to be called Dazed & Confused magazine. Noakes, a music writer by trade, oversees the mag, which covers culture, fashion, music and stuff for the cool kids. Professor Tim Noakes is a sports scientist, a runner of marathons, writer of books and muncher of meat. The prof may even sport a dazed expression occasionally, but that may be the burden of those in academia. Bright as pins on the inside, but sometimes a little startled at the daftness of the real world outside their heads.
There is an island in the Shashi River that a man once declared for himself as an independent country. It’s a small island with a few big trees and some desperate shrubs. It is surrounded by the sands of the Shashi, which are dry for much of the year, plonked closer to the Botswana side of the river than the entrance to Zimbabwe.
“The story goes that an old boer claimed it his own personal country,” said Adam Scott, one of our guides on the Tour de Tuli, the mountain bike trip through Botswana and Zimbabwe last weekend. He was apparently given a lesson in international politics, told to get lost, and, possibly after a look around at what was a whole lot of nothing, legged it. I wonder what he would have made of a group of mountain bikers pushing their bikes across the kilometre or so that is the width of the Shashi, heading from Botswana to Zimbabwe on the second day of the four-day trip. Madness, he may have whispered to his lifelong friend, a basketball with a drawn-on face. “They’re headed to the land of plenty that now has nothing, where men are told to be men except when they want to be with men.”
There are places not so far away and still far, far away. These are places where time feels like it found a place it liked and stood still, waiting for tomorrow to catch up so it could show it yesterday.
These are places where rivers flow and dry up, where countries end and begin, where people find themselves defined by the land and circumstance.
These are the places we rode through on bicycles made for one in the Nedbank Tour de Tuli, a four-stage ride through Botswana, Zimbabwe and, for a few kilometres, home to South Africa.
Cameron van der Burgh and Guilio Zorzi celebrated their gold and bronze world championship medals in the 50-metres breaststroke by rocking the “comb over”. It’s less Bobby Charlton and more what once was called a “side parting”.
They were wearing it “all day”, tweeted Van der Burgh, because, tweeted Zorzi in return, “even superman does the comb over haha”. Wednesday night was a night for superheroes, both old and new, to remind us of those magical nights in London, where the Olympic pool became a South African ocean of dreams. In 20 minutes South Africa had three medals and topped the medal table for the day at the Fina World Championships in Barcelona.
Chad le Clos kicked if off with a composed, seemingly easy win in the 200-metres butterfly, in which he had time to look left, look right and look left again to check on how close the opposition were. It is the sort of thing coaches do not encourage in their charges. During the Olympics, Le Clos’s coach, Graham Hill, had told him not to do it, although he had taken a peek at the final turn when he was up against Michael Phelps.
The reason Van der Burgh is a great champion, is because of his awareness of others, from fans to competitors, trainers, sponsors, managers and friends. On Wednesday night, he celebrated his win, then looked up and saw his childhood friend, Zorzi, had taken bronze. He immediately swam over to him and hugged him. It was the shot The Star used on the front page yesterday, a picture of a man at ease with his own talent and fame, and imbued with a sense of humility and grace. During the medal ceremony, as the anthem was about to be played, he pulled Zorzi up on to the top step of the podium beside him, and the comb-over boys sang for their country.
Yesterday morning I sent Van der Burgh a message of congratulations and said that the pair of them on the podium was perhaps the best sporting moment of 2013 thus far. “It was like winning in London having him with me up there,” he replied.
In the space of a year, from London to Barcelona, South African swimmers have given Swimming South Africa the best public relations push they could. Three home-trained athletes winning medals at the world championships must surely be enough to attract big corporate sponsorship. And yet, the money has not come flying in. It’s an anomaly. Van der Burgh believes they need to put on big meets in South Africa to give sponsors coverage, with few international stars. He is passionate about making swimming one of the biggest sports in the country.
Le Clos, Van der Burgh and Zorzi have shown how superstars can be grown at home in South Africa. More money, more exposure will beget more comb-over superheroes.
A year on, the memories of July 27, 2012 are still strong. From Kenneth Branagh, the man born and raised in Belfast, telling the world not to be afeard as the isle is and was full of noises; chimney stacks raising from meadows as the Industrial Revolution crushed the countryside; nurses, nightmares and the National Health Service; the Queen jumping out of a chopper. Rowan Atkinson cracking us up by using just one finger; and, most wonderfully, the Arctic Monkeys playing “Come Together”, upstaging Paul McCartney.
I’ve never liked opening and closing ceremonies. They are often self-indulgent and plodding. Athens was beautiful and confusing, the most memorable bit when they lit that giant three-blader of a spliff. Beijing took us through 5 000 years of history, seemingly in real time. London and Daniel Coyle, the director, thought, sod it, let’s have a party. Did they ever.