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Johannesburg – South African 400-metre hurdler LJ van Zyl has dreamt of winning an Olympic gold medal since watching American Kevin Young achieve the feat 20 years ago.
Bloemfontein-born Van Zyl was just six when he saw Young clock 46.78 seconds in Barcelona to not only win the final, but also create a world record that still stands.
It proved a pivotal moment for the emerging sprinter as LJ decided his future lay in hurdle racing and he goes to the London Olympics as one of the leading South African medal hopes although he is happy to consider himself an outsider.
A niggling knee injury and a mystery virus have disrupted the preparations of the athlete who turns 27 Friday and his best time this year ranks only 66 on the 2012 IAAF 400m hurdles list.
Van Zyl ran 49.42 sec in Pretoria last April to better the Olympic qualifying mark a second time and clinch a place in Team South Africa as the Games return to London after a 64-year absence.
That time is 1.64 sec behind Puerto Rican Javier Culson, who has returned five of the best seven times this year with the other two coming from David Greene of Great Britain.
Greene and Culson are well known to Van Zyl as he finished third behind them at the 2011 world championships in South Korean city Daegu despite recording the best four times of the year ahead of that race.
No surprise, then, that Van Zyl rates Greene and Culson among the favourites for London gold along with 2008 Beijing Olympics medalists Angelo Taylor and Bershawn Jackson from the United States.
Taylor won the race ahead of compatriots Kerron Clement and Jackson with Jamaican Danny McFarlane fourth and Van Zyl fifth in 48.42 sec – 1.17 sec behind the winner.
Recalling the 2008 final, Van Zyl believes he adopted the wrong tactics by trying to keep up with the fast-starting Taylor instead of running at his own pace.
“I should have held back a bit and run the race the way I usually do,” he confessed. “I will not make the same mistake if I get the opportunity to run in the final again.”
His unimpressive form ahead of London does not unduly concern Van Zyl as he has tended to flatter only to deceive ahead of previous major events on the athletics calendar.
His times were among the top three in the heats and semi-finals ahead of the Beijing final and LJ was considered favourite to win gold in Daegu after the four best times.
Media-shy Van Zyl also took the fastest time of the year into the 2009 world championships in Berlin only to be eliminated at the semi-finals stage of the 400m hurdles.
“I much prefer being an underdog,” he admits. “If I reach the final anything can happen. I only need to win one race to win the Olympic gold medal,” he said before heading for the English capital.
“It is the dream of every athlete to stand on the podium and have a gold medal placed around their neck. I am no different and cannot wait for the Olympics to begin.”
African athletes have struggled in the 400m hurdles, capturing just four medals from a possible 72 since 1900 in Paris with only one gold medalist, Ugandan John Akii-Bua.
He created Olympic and world records by clocking 47.82 sec to win at the 1972 Munich Games and Amadou Dia Ba of Senegal and Samuel Matete of Zambia have collected silver and Llewellyn Herbert of South Africa bronze.
Herbert rates Van Zyl a medal contender: “He is blessed with superb speed and stamina. LJ uses 14 paces between the hurdles and does that consistently. You do not see him lose his rhythm easily.
“He attacks the hurdle very well and the way he sets himself up for the next hurdle after negotiating the previous one is superb,” said the 2000 Sydney Games bronze medalist. – Sapa-AFP