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Olympic golden boys Cameron van der Burgh and Chad Le Clos winning gold medals in London has once again reminded South Africans of the unifying power of sport in this country.
South Africa has come a long way since being banned from taking part in the Olympic Games in 1960. The first time the country could compete again was more than 30 years later at the 25th Olympic Games in Barcelona, in 1992 – after the abolition of apartheid.
The SA team brought back two silver medals that year and it was the start of many great things to come in our sporting history. This year our team are hoping to secure 12 medals and Van der Burgh’s victory is sure to inspire his teammates.
Since the 1992 Olympic appearance we have seen first-hand the power of sport. From our historic and inspirational Rugby World Cup win in 1995 to our successful hosting of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, our sporting heroes have always been there, making us proud.
SA has made great strides in sport and in the process we have impressed audiences and sporting associations worldwide.
Van der Burgh’s achievement has added to this recent euphoria around SA sport. It proudly embodies both the Olympic and the SA spirit.
Before Van der Burgh South Africans like Penny Heyns, Hezekiel Sepeng, Natalie du Toit, Ryk Neethling, Caster Semenya, Roland Schoeman, Khotso Mokoena, Zola Budd and, most recently, the Proteas and Ernie Els helped us stay firmly on our path towards social cohesion and unity as a country.
SA’s success in different sporting codes has also introduced younger generations to a more diverse selection of extra-curricular interests – from horse-riding, to canoeing, hockey and BMXing.
The historical association between race and sports which dominated SA’s past is fading away and we are now at a point where we are identifying, grooming and retaining talent in different sporting codes – irrespective of creed, race or history.
Ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, golfer Ernie Els’s famous victory at the 2012 Open Championship and cricketer Hashim Amla’s historic 311 not out against England have brought SA back into the spotlight as a nation of sporting excellence.
And independent global studies confirm this.
In the 2011Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index, which benchmarks global perceptions of 50 countries in many categories, SA’s highest score was for “sporting excellence”, where it was ranked 16th in the world.
Its overall ranking was 36th (one up on 2010) which shows how important sport is for establishing South Africa’s reputation globally.
Though daunting at first, the aspiration for 12 Olympic medals is not that far a stretch when you consider how dedicated and committed Team SA has been.
Analysts say that most likely, at best, our Olympic team will win six medals at the Games.
But opinions do not determine our drive and will to succeed. Our men’s hockey side dismissed talk of them not being good enough, and a team of part-timers with no sponsor qualified for this year’s Olympics.
SA’s Olympic hopes are not that implausible and 2012 is an opportunity for all our athletes to also put themselves on the map.
It is an opportunity for Team SA to prove to even the most cynical critic that SA is a country where men and women can carve a career for themselves in sporting codes beyond cricket, rugby, soccer, netball and hockey.
The hope that the country has in them is not only because they represent SA, but because they represent our values as a nation.
We’ve proven it to the world many times before: our talent and diversity is what makes us a great sporting nation.
Our sports stars have always been there for us.
They have come through during times when we have been despondent and hopeless.
When we have felt overwhelmed by the ripples of our past, they show us that there is more to this country than a divided past and a history of pain.
They show us that with focus and commitment to our goals we can achieve and see how we are one and the same. It is a lesson every South African needs to be reminded of; and it is a reason why we need to be unyielding in our support of Team SA.
* Miller Matola is the CEO of Brand South Africa.