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.
At a function for the MTN-Qhubeka cycling team in Rosebank this week, the deputy high commissioner of the United Kingdom, Martin Reynolds was told in a half-joking way, that Africa and South Africa were claiming Chris Froome and the Tour de France win. His reply was razor sharp: “Froome is indeed British, but then we have been known to rely on South Africans for some of our sporting success.”
The issue of Froome’s nationality has been subject to some debate. Froome says he is British, born in Kenya, raised in South Africa. In November this year, Froome is expected to ride in the Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenge along with 25 000 others. He did so last year, completing a double lap with Joel Stransky to raise money for charity. Then he went home to his house in Parkhurst, which is in South Africa.
His house in Parkhurst is about 10km from his old school, St John’s, which is in South Africa. His brother apparently goes to school at St Alban’s in Pretoria, which is in South Africa. During the Tour, he said he feels most at home in Kenya, but there is much of South Africa in Froome. This is more than just nationality. Froome learnt to race here, rode for his first professional team here, first watched the Tour de France here and many of his oldest friends live here. He’s not South African, but there is no reason not to celebrate the part South Africa played in his success.
South Africa did more for the progress of Froome than it did for Steve Nash, the LA Lakers NBA player, who was born in Johannesburg in 1974. His Welsh mother and English father took him to Canada when he was just 18 months old. He has been an NBA MVP twice and an All Star eight times. Born in Joburg? We’ll take him. He’s a South African. Thabo Sefolosha, a shooting guard with the Oklahoma City Thunder, has a South African father and lived here for a while. We’ll have him, too.
There’s the actress Sienna Miller, whose mother was South African. She doesn’t play sport, but neither does Dave Matthews. Orlando Bloom was told that his dad was Harry Saul Bloom, an anti-apartheid campaigner, but it turned out to be a family friend instead. Still, we’ll have him.
Earlier this year, Roger Federer was in South Africa for the briefest of visits. I told him his mum, who was from Kempton Park, had said on radio that South Africans could claim part of him as being steeped in the Rainbow Nation. I said that the East Rand wanted first dibs on him. “Oh, really?” he laughed. “Yes, that’s okay.”
There are only two types of people. Those who are South African, and those who we claim to be South African. We’re taking over the world, one athlete and actor at a time.
The day Chris Froome learnt that nothing is won until it is won was a hot one in Pietermaritzburg over five years ago. Froome had broken clear of the bunch in the third race of the Worlds View Challenge and was soloing to the finish. He thought he had enough of a gap to ensure he wouldn’t be caught.
His radio had stopped working and even when he did speak to his team manager, Claudio Corti, communication was iffy – Froome’s Italian was as poor as Corti’s English. The drop into Pietermaritzburg is quick. Froome had built up a lead of two minutes, but it had been whittled away as the sprinters battled for position with Robbie Hunter. As he approached the finish, a spectator shouted at Froome that he had a two-minute gap. He did not. He had but a few seconds.