By Larry Lombaard

Athens - Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, the world indoor 800m champion and gold-medal winner at the Manchester Commonwealth Games, will be the flag-bearer for South Africa at the Athens Olympics Opening Ceremony on Friday night.

"It is a great honour for me to carry South Africa's flag," said Mulaudzi who debuts at the Olympics and will race the 800m with his compatriot, the seasoned Hezekiel

Sepeng. "I hope to do South Africa proud when I compete in the 800m. I'm feeling fully recovered from my injury earlier this year and from being sick before we left for Athens.

I hope I can win a medal for my country."

Athletics SA president Leonard Chuene said the choice of Mulaudzi sent an especially strong message to the rural people of South Africa.

"We are thrilled that an athlete under our banner has been selected for this honour," said

Chuene. "Mulaudzi comes from a small village in Limpopo Province and it sends a message of hope for all our rural people. He represents the fact that you don't have to be from the city to make it big in the world. Mulaudzi was definitely the right choice."

Sepeng, who is sharing a room with Mulaudzi in the Olympic Village, was thrilled for Mulaudzi. "This will give him a lift. he can be very proud."

Sepeng and Mulaudzi spend a lot of time together listening to music and playing video games, but they train separately. "It's not good for us to train together because one day I might feel good and another day he might and we would surely distract one another."

Sepeng said he was confident that Mulaudzi would be ready for a strong challenge despite a disappointing race in Zurich last Friday.

"He's feeling much better," said Sepeng. "I told him not to put too much pressure on himself at these, his first Olympics. He's getting more positive. There have been Olympics when the runner who was not the favourite won gold, and it could happen for him.

"He wanted to race fast at Zurich after recovering from injury and feeling sick. Now he realises that it was not possible. Now he's fully recovered. He'll be sharp when we get going."

Sepeng, South Africa's Olympic, world championship and Commonwealth Games silver medal winner, has decided to "stay in the box" when he gets his 800m Olympic campaign underway with Mulaudzi in first round heats on August 25.

Sepeng, known is the "silver surfer" on the international circuit because of his silver medal haul, will ride the wave of energy inside the pack of runners - a tactic that has generated heated debate among his followers.

"I know that people get concerned when I race in the box," said Sepeng, a medal hopeful, on Thursday. "They feel that I surrender my chances of winning when I get hemmed in by the other runners. I've tried many other tactics, but they don't work for me."

Sepeng said he preferred staying inside the running action. "Inside the pack, I stay with the rhythm and I stay relaxed.

"I've been around a long time now and I've tried leading from the start, hugging the inside and going hard on the outside. But I find that I get into a bit of a panic - especially on the outside. That makes me tense up and I lose rhythm," said the charismatic runner who relaxes with music and playing video games.

"I've decided that at these Olympics, I'm staying in the box where I don't lose contact and I don't panic because if I do, then I know I'll trip up. It's my zone of focus and it works for me."

Sepeng said that he had never felt as relaxed and fresh for a major international event as he does for these Olympics.

"I've made peace with myself," he said. "I'm older now and I'm tactically wiser. I'm staying fresh in the Village and it's a great feeling to have hard workouts and not feel sore or tired afterwards."

Sepeng, now 30, did a quality session of 12x200m on Wednesday averaging out at 22 seconds which were one second each off his pace when he was in his mid-twenties.

"I'll move from the 600 or 700m mark because I'm just a touch off the finishing speed I had in four to eight years ago when I won silver in Atlanta."

Shaun Bownes is fully recovered from a sciatic nerve problem that has boosted his confidence to make the Olympic final of the 110m hurdles.

"It's a huge relief," said Bownes as the team awaited the arrival of world women's high jump champion Hestrie Cloete in the afternoon.

"The problematic nerve was affecting my hamstring and my stride over the hurdles. The team doctor Wayne Derman has done great work to sort it out.

"I feel I've got power now. From now until my first heat on August 24 I'll be working on speed and technique. My focus is on getting into the final, then if all comes right, on the night, this "toppie" of the team might just squeeze a medal," said the 34-year-old war-horse of the track who ran 13,75 in a low-key meeting in Switzerland on Sunday.

Alwyn Myburgh and Ockert Cilliers, the young 400m hurdlers in the SA team, are hitting peak form in their Olympic build-up.

Myburgh ran a winning 48,89sec at the Swiss meeting and may enter another in the alpine country on Saturday. "I was happy with that, it was my second fastest this season," said Myburgh who is also focused on making the final. "It's good to get out of the Village and sharpen with some low profile racing."

Cilliers is also back to peak health after undergoing a slump from a bad reaction to malaria tablets at the Africa athletics championships in the Congo six weeks ago.

"I'm getting my strength back," he said. "Now I'm getting excited about getting into action here." - Sapa