HIGH HOPES: Oscar Pistorius in action.
HIGH HOPES: Oscar Pistorius in action.

Sameer Naik

Four years ago, SA’s Paralympics team of 66 walked away with 30 medals and finished sixth in Beijing.

This year, they’re hoping to better their performance at the Paralympic Games in London in two weeks.

Compared with the able-bodied athletes, who returned from Beijing with only a silver medal – won by long jumper Khotso Mokoena in Beijing – SA’s Paralympians astounded spectators in 2008 when they collected 21 gold, three silver and six bronze medals.

The country also produced three of the stars of the Games – Natalie du Toit, Oscar Pistorius and Hilton Langenhoven.

Du Toit bagged five gold medals in the five swimming events she entered and was named the women’s winner of the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award for the 2008 Games.

Pistorius won the 100-metre, 200m and 400m events.

Langenhoven set a world record when he won the pentathlon, added a Paralympic record in the long jump, and then earned his third gold medal by finishing the 200m race in 21.94 seconds.

With 11 days to go to the start of the Paralympic Games in London, Team SA say they are ready and raring to go.

“The team are ready and well prepared,” said Pieter Badenhorst, the team’s chef de mission.

“They are eager to get to London.”

Sixty-two athletes will head to London to compete at the Paralympics – four fewer than took part in the 2008 Beijing games.

Seven sporting codes are represented in the squad – athletics, cycling, equestrian, rowing, swimming, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis.

Athletics, with 25 participants, has the greatest representation. There are 12 players in the basketball squad, and 10 swimmers who will be competing at the Olympic Aquatic Centre. Cycling features six competitors.

Badenhorst said that the SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) was pleased with the number of athletes participating this year.

“These 62 athletes are the best possible team that could have been selected,” he said.

“The qualification criteria were tough, so we are comfortable that these guys who qualified are the best South Africans in their events.”

Badenhorst said that a medals target had not been set, but they would be overjoyed if Team SA emulated or bettered their performance in 2008.

“No specific targets are set in terms of medals, but we do believe that if the individuals in the team perform to their potential, then the medals will certainly follow.

“The achievement in 2008 was phenomenal. It would be fantastic if that can be emulated in London. But it is difficult to predict medals and medal table positions as many things change in four years.”

Badenhorst said there had been several changes to the Paralympics programme that could affect Team SA positively and negatively.

“As we have seen with the Olympics, one gold medal has the effect to move you up or down the medals table a couple of spots.”

Badenhorst is also hoping that the medal winners from 2008 can claim glory at this year’s Paralympics.

“We are hoping that the 2008 medallists will be on the podium again.

“We are also very excited with a new breed of young guns who will be very competitive in London.”

Badenhorst added that SA’s Paralympic team had taken great inspiration from the SA Olympic team and their performance at the Games.

SA’s Olympic team claimed six medals, the country’s best Games performance since apartheid.

“The whole country was inspired by the Olympic team. It is very exciting for the Paralympians to know they will be competing in a couple of days at the same venues as the Chads and Casters and Bolts,” Badenhorst said.

“The Olympians helped to get a positive vibe going in the team.”

So where will the majority of Team SA’s medals come from at this years Paralympic games?

Badenhorst said: “Traditionally, athletics and swimming delivered the bulk of the medals.

“(Competitors in) cycling and equestrian also did well in the past.”

The majority of athletes in Team SA are still in the country. A handful, however, are involved in international tournaments.

“Most of the sports had a number of international events in recent months in preparation for the Olympics, but most (of the team) are still in SA,” Badenhorst said.

“The equestrian team will be departing this week to the UK to spend more time with their horses and some individual athletes are at bases in Europe.”

Badenhorst would not be drawn on where he thought the SA team would finish on the medals table.

“The motto of the team is ‘Anything is possible’.”

Sascoc will soon announce which athlete has been chosen as SA’s flag-bearer.

The Paralympics are from August 29 to September 9.

SA Paralympic athletes to watch out for:

Oscar Pistorius: Athletics

Pistorius won gold in the100m, 200m and 400m events in the T44 class at the Beijing Olympics. “Blade Runner” Pistorius brought the curtain down on the track programme in Beijing, obliterating the field to win the T44 400m in a world record time of 47.49 seconds, finishing a huge 3.49 seconds ahead of runner-up Jim Bob Bizzell of the US.

Pistorius won the Laureus World Sports Award for Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability this year.

Natalie Du Toit: swimming

Du Toit bagged five gold medals in the five events she entered in SB9 swimming in Beijing – and was named the women’s winner of the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award for the 2008 Games. The champion swimmer won the Laureus World Sports Award for Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability in 2010.

Hilton Langenhoven: Athletics

Langenhoven set a world record in Beijing when he won the T12 pentathlon, then added a Paralympian record in winning the long jump, and earned a third gold medal by claiming victory in the 200m in 21.94 seconds.

Ernst van Dyk: Cycling

With a list of achievements as long as the marathons he races in, Van Dyk is not only a green-and-gold champion, he is also SA’s all-round golden boy. He lives with his family in the Western Cape, where he was born and grew up. Congenital birth defects didn’t deter this inspiring athlete.

On the contrary, Van Dyk’s determination has seen him win the Boston Marathon eight times, the prestigious Laureus Award in 2006 and other awards.