By Larry Lombaard
South Africa's Olympic puzzle took on vibrant shape and colour when 58 athletes in nine sports were named to compete at the 2004 Athens Olympics by Nocsa president Sam Ramsamy in Johannesburg on Wednesday.
The hockey men made an ecstatic return while debutantes badminton floated gently into the Olympic fold as teams for canoeing, cycling, judo, rowing, sailing, swimming and triathlon were presented to the media at Nocsa's Houghton headquarters.
The strongest medal contenders at the briefing were the rowing men's pair of Donavon Cech and Ramon Di Clement who showed their potential when they finished second to Italy's Dario Lari and Giuseppe Vita at the Munich World Cup regatta on June 1.
"The Aussies are the real danger, but they're keeping a low profile," said Cech. "We're leaving next week to race at the Henley Regatta which should be a good sharpener. Up until now our training has been pretty smooth."
Cycling, for the first time since South Africa's re-admission to the Olympics in Barcelona, will have no representation on the track.
The swimming team of eight - that includes Roland Schoeman, Ryk Neethling and Terence Parkin - will for the first time be a men's only affair with no South African women having qualified.
The most conspicuous failures among Nocsa's Operation Excellence hopefuls were those of track cyclists JP van Zyl and Garen Bloch, who were earmarked to challenge for a medal in the Madison at the Athens Velodrome in August.
Bloch, who finished eighth in the 1 000m time trial at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, suffered a nervous breakdown earlier this year before withdrawing from the cycling scene by travelling to Israel. An off-form Van Zyl - he had been struggling with illness - partnered Robbie Dale at the world track championships in Melbourne in May where he needed to qualify among the top 14 out of a field of 16, but he failed to finish the 50-lap Madison.
Robbie Hunter, meanwhile, spearheads the three-man road team of Ryan Cox and Tiaan Kannemeyer, while top one-day specialist Anriette Schoeman will challenge for the women's road title.
Ramsamy has put his weight behind cycling manager Tony Harding to have the road riders race on the European circuit up until the eve of their Olympic events rather than have them spend a fortnight at the Nocsa training camp in the hustle and bustle of Athens.
Hunter, who rides for pro outfit Rabobank, has stressed that the Olympics remain his focus for the year above the Tour de France. He has shown sharp form this year with two stage wins in the Tour of Switzerland.
Wednesday, meanwhile, was a bittersweet day for the men's hockey team who made their return to the Olympics after finishing 10th at Atlanta, then being turned down by Nocsa for Sydney in a controversial decision regarding selection criteria.
The squad of 20 at a training camp in Pretoria returned from a run on Wednesday morning to be informed that four players - Ken Forbes, Bruce Basson, Wayne Madsen and Ian Haley - had missed out on final selection.
"Only 16 of us can go to Athens," said seasoned Emile Smith. "When we get back to Pretoria, those four dudes will have gone home and that puts a sad note on things for us because we've become a tight unit during the camp."
Veteran striker Greg Nicol reflected the pleasure of making it to the Olympics. "This has been the most incredible day for us," said Nicol who came out of two-years' retirement in January when it became evident that the men's team would travel to Athens. This, after months of doubt during which Greece attempted to nudge them out at the bottom of the qualifications list on a technicality.
Nicol, 29, has played 193 internationals for South Africa, during which time he has scored 236 goals. "The two highlights of my life was playing for South Africa at the Atlanta Olympics, then at the Commonwelath Games in Kuala Lumpur (1998) where we missed making the semis by one point. We beat Australia there and they went on to win gold.
"Athens is going to be a huge challenge for us. Our main obstacles in our pool are going to be New Zealand, Argentina and India with Holland and Australia the medal contenders."
Sports with solo contenders are canoeing with Alan van Coller - he finished sixth in the 500m at the Sydney Olympics - judo with Henriette Moller, diving with Jenna Dreyer and sailing with Gareth Blanckenberg.
Conrad Stoltz, who led for most of the cycling before falling out of contention in the run at the Sydney Olympics triathlon, will race at Athens while Megan Hall will take up the challenge in the women's triathlon.
"Many athletes will be participating in the Olympic Games for the first time and we are confident that they will endeavour to do their best," said Ramsamy. "Participating in the Olympic Games is a dream come true for every athlete. Years of training and discipline will eventually be put to the test and we believe that this group of athletes will do our country proud."
The rest of the Nocsa team, including the track and field athletes, will be announced late in July.
Teams announced on Wednesday: