Debutants hungry for medals

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SA_Team Gallo Images Team SA at their final send-off for the Olympi Games.

After his fire and brimstone speech at the Team South Africa farewell banquet on Wednesday night, sports minister Fikile Mbalula did not manage to make the team’s ABF (absolutely bloody final) farewell function at OR Tambo International Airport on Thursday afternoon.

If they were upset at not getting a final bit of war talk ahead of London, the South African athletes managed to bury their disappointment and got on with the tough job of saying their goodbyes before girding their loins and other useful bits for the competition that lies ahead. The team is ready. The alcohol bans are in place. The women’s and men’s hockey teams have sworn off the bottle until after their time in London has come to an end. Whether that will end with a medal or not is uncertain.

Hezekiel Sepeng believes that it will be the first-timers who will bring back medals for South Africa. Sepeng, a silver medal winner in the 800m in Atlanta, felt that while experience was desirable, the debutants usually won the medals for the South Africa. Everyone was a debutant in Barcelona when Pietie Norval and Wayne Ferreira won silver in the men’s doubles, while Elana Meyer took an emotional silver in the 10000m.

“If you look at who has won the medals, a lot of the people had not taken part in an Olympics before,” said Sepeng. “When I got the silver in 1996 it was my first Olympics. When Josia Thugwane won gold in the marathon, it was his first Games. Khotso Mokoena won a silver at his first Olympics. And the list goes on. That’s the thing about this team. There’s some experience, but a lot of people who are hungry to win and bring back medals for their country.”

While Sepeng believes that athletics give South Africa a healthy percentage of their medals, the performance of the swimming team could dictate how well or poorly South Africa do. It’s down to momentum. Creating the winning habit. Getting the spirit up in the South African enclave in the Olympic Village.

In 1996 the two gold medals by Penny Heyns and the bronze by Marianne Kriel started the ball rolling, and Thugwane finished it off with that magnificent run in the marathon. In 2000, while Terence Parkin took silver and Heyns won bronze – at the end of her Olympic career. Hestrie Cloete, Frantz Kruger and Llewellyn Herbert weighed in with three more medals. In 2004, the Awesome Foursome blew the rest of the world away in the 4x100m freestyle relay in one of the all-time great Olympic performances by a South African team. Roland Schoeman would go on to become the most successful South African at an Olympic Games, while the men’s pair of Don Cech and Ramon di Clemente took bronze in rowing and Mbulaeni Mulaudzi and Cloete won silver in the 800m and high jump respectively. And then came 2008, when, as Sam said the “wheels came off”.

Some felt Sepeng’s appointment was a strange one, but he has a history of being able to coax athletes through the big occasion. In 2004 Mulaudzi, who had had a horrid run in a meet in Zurich shortly before the Olympics, wanted to go home. Sepeng, his roommate, convinced him to stay.

“He was upset and nervous, and I told him not to be afraid of the nerves,” said Sepeng. “You have to treat the Olympics just like another meet, even though you know it isn’t. It’s about being clever on the day, not letting yourself get carried away with the occasion. Muluadzi went out and won silver that day because he believed he could and he just kept pushing hard. That’s what I expect all of our athletes to do.” – The Star

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