JOHANNESBURG - South Africa produced a record medal harvest at the IAAF World Championships in London, clinching three golds, a silver, and two bronze medals, but missed out on displaying its depth due to Athletics SA’s (ASA) selection policy.
The country ended the biennial showpiece third on the overall medals table behind the US and Kenya with tallies of 29 and 11 respectively.
Semenya brought the curtain down on an extraordinary championships for South Africa with her 800m gold on Sunday, adding to the 1500m bronze from earlier in the week.
Semenya and 400m world record-holder Wayde van Niekerk confirmed their status as South Africa’s queen and king of track and field.
Van Niekerk defended his 400m world title while proving his class by adding the 200m silver medal to his treasure chest, finishing a tough week consisting of six consecutive days of competitive racing.
The gravity of Van Niekerk’s achievement should be appreciated after he first managed to retain his world 400m title in cold conditions after four days of racing.
While his competitors had the benefit of resting before the one-lap sprint final, Van Niekerk had to manoeuvre past the 200m heats.
Winning the 400m was half the job done as he had to refocus the next day to tackle cold and wet conditions in the 200m semi-final, where he nearly missed out on the final as one of the non-automatic qualifiers.
Van Niekerk was practically written off as a medal contender based on his performance in the semi-finals, but managed to come within a whisker of claiming the rare 200-400m double.
It was nothing short of spectacular from South Africa’s world superstars with long-jumper extraordinaire Luvo Manyonga adding the world senior title to the junior one from seven years ago.
Joining Manyonga on the podium, Ruswahl Samaai won bronze, affirming South Africa as one of the long jump powers.
Of South Africa’s 26 athletes who participated at the championships only nine made it into the semi-finals, while five made it through to finals excluding those featuring in straight finals such as the 10000m, marathon, and race walking. With Semenya and Van Niekerk winning two medals each, South Africa’s performance in terms of depth may be slightly skewed.
While South Africa may have finished among the top three in terms of its medal haul, it could not crack the top-10 on the placing table.
The country finished 11th overall, adding only a fourth and a fifth place to the six podium finishes.
South African sprinting sensation Akani Simbine finished fifth in the men’s 100m final, while race walker Lebogang Shange turned in a gutsy performance for a fourth place in the 20km event.
ASA’s erratic policy is evident in the performances at the championships, where nearly half of the athletes met its A-qualifying standards.
The premise of the tougher standards was that these athletes would have a greater chance of finishing among the top 16 or eight.
Eight of the 16 so-called A-qualifiers did not make it past the first round while two of the athletes who were included on the IAAF standard made the top 16.
Shange, who did not meet the strict qualifying standards but earned selection, walked to a creditable fourth place.
Sprinter Justine Palframan and middle-distance runner Gena Lofstrand both made it into their respective semi-finals in the 200m and 800m, despite initially missing out on selection for not posting ASA’s standards.
Seven of the 14 athletes who met the IAAF’s standards but were not good enough according to ASA’s criteria would have made the top 16 based on their season’s best times. While these times may count for nothing, they was the basis on which ASA selected or omitted athletes from the team.
Former South African 100m record-holder Henricho Bruintjies’ top time of 10.06 seconds would have not only been good enough to advance him into the semi-finals but could have earned him sixth place in the final.
Any three of the four male 400m hurdlers who were left at home - Cornel Fredericks (49.27), Constant Pretorius (49.28), LJ van Zyl (49.29), or Leroux Hamman (49.35) -could have made it into the semi-final as they all went faster than the slowest non- automatic qualifier’s time of 50.12.
South Africa can nevertheless be proud of the performance.