‘Greatest Olympics rowing finish ever’
London - Expect the unexpected from Team South Africa at the London Olympics. Expect them to turn belief into unbelievable performances. Expect them to spin screaming pain into glorious gold. Expect them to win a third gold medal in what was called “the greatest rowing finish the Olympics has ever seen”.
South Africa’s lightweight fours team of James Thompson, Matthew Brittain, John Smith and Lawrence Ndlovu won a “brutal” race to take the country’s third gold of the London Games with a come-from-behind win that was reminiscent of Chad le Clos’s victory over Olympic legend Michael Phelps.
Trailing Denmark, England and Australia, they produced a lung-busting effort in the final 500m to win by a quarter-of-a-second. Like Le Clos, the four did not know they had won until they looked up and saw the big screen. Disbelief, and then furious celebration followed as Thompson roared and slapped the water with his hand.
Sitting at the stroke end of the boat, the back, Ndlovu, the oldest member of the team, bowed his head and patted the water in celebration.
Brittain flexed his biceps in an imitation of Lyndon Ferns when that other Awesome Foursome won in the pool in Athens and then collapsed backwards.
Smith reached his arms to the sky, his fingers showing the result – number one at the Olympics.
Now Sascoc owes R1.5 million in incentives for gold medals won by South Africans. There is a finite pool of R6m to spend on medal winners. This could get a little bit expensive for them if South Africa carry on this way.
The man who started the rush of gold at the Olympics, Cameron van der Burgh, who won the 100m breaststroke, tweeted his joy: “GOLD!!!!!! Rowing you ANIMALS!!!!!!!! I don’t think I can’t take this anymore!”
Neither could Smith, who said they had taken their lead from Van der Burgh and Le Clos. “I can’t believe it. The swimming has really inspired us,” said Smith. “The final push for the line, when they were back in fourth, was immense.
“I kept my head down in the boat, we kept ourselves for the big sprint. They say that big sprinters finish second – not today. Our stroke man Lawrence took us home.”
Ndlovu, the first black South African to win an Olympic gold medal since Josiah Thugwane in the 1996 marathon, is the old man of the team at the age of 31, with Smith 22, Brittain 25 and Thompson 26. Winning the gold came at the end of an 11-year journey in rowing for the Ndlovu.
Born in Johannesburg, bred in Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, he returned to Joburg to attend the Mondeor High School, which had a strong rowing tradition.
There, Tom Price, the headmaster, spotted the potential in the young man and encouraged him to take the sport up in 1997.
Price would pick Ndlovu up at 5am, make him train before school and then again in the afternoon.
Sadly, Price, whom Ndlovu describes as a “great man”, died in 2006 and never got to see him achieve on the greatest stage of all.
At 32 this may be his first/last Olympics, but Ndlovu will remain a disciple of the sport back home.
This will be, of course, after he puts on the braai he promised to organise if they won.
“I’m excited. Rowing is not as well known in South Africa as rugby or soccer, which everybody knows.
“The reason is that we don’t have the facilities around.
“It costs money to have rowing lanes, and they don’t have them at schools, so you have to drive to the venues in order to train.”
Patience Shikwambana, the chef de mission of Team South Africa, felt it was a small step for Ndlovu, but, possibly, a large leap for destroying some perceptions in South Africa: “This inspires people back home in a big way.
“For me, Ndlovu, for him being part of that team, it will start to say to most of our black people that really we as blacks, we can’t swim or we can’t be in the water – he has proven that wrong, they can be able to do it.
“So, we are encouraging our youth to say, look, let’s not just focus on netball or football as the black sports, but they can get involved in any sports.
“As long as they are given exposure at an early age, they can be able to achieve that.”
Expect the unexpected in the future if her words are paid some heed.