Can shot put star Kyle Blignaut break Team SA athletics medal drought in Tokyo?
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CAPE TOWN – It has been a case of so near and yet so far for Team South Africa’s athletics squad at the Tokyo Olympics.
In fact, a number of medal contenders across several sporting codes have missed out on finals, let alone winning medals.
Swimming provided two podium places through Tatjana Schoenmaker’s gold and silver haul in the breaststroke events, while Bianca Buitendag had a remarkable run to clinch silver in surfing.
That’s it – that’s the sum total of Mzansi’s medal tally… three.
But as Schoenmaker often says, if you have a lane, you have a chance. And in the case of Kyle Blignaut, he has a spot in the shot put final, which takes place on Thursday at 4.05am SA time.
At 21, it is a sensational feat from the Tuks Sport star to be among the top 12 shot put athletes in the world, as these big men usually get better with age.
American world record-holder Ryan Crouser is 28, and improved his personal best from the Olympic record of 22.52m from the 2016 Rio Games to the world mark of 23.37m in June this year. Fellow United States star Joe Kovacs, who is ranked No 2 with a distance of 22.72m, is 32 years old.
So, what are Blignaut’s chances of winning a medal?
Well, the former rugby player – who stands 1.95m tall and weighs 148kg – is at No 24 on the world list this year, with his personal best of 21.21m coming in Johannesburg in May.
That distance is the lowest PBs of the 12 finalists, with the next athlete above him a former South African, Zane Weir – who now represents Italy – with 21.25m, which he produced in the qualifying round in Tokyo, followed by Egypt’s Mostafa Amr Hassan with 21.31m.
The top three are Crouser (23.37m), Kovacs (22.91m) and New Zealand’s Tomas Walsh (22.90m), although it wasn’t the same order in the qualification round.
Blignaut was in eighth position with his 20.97m, with Crouser top (22.05m), followed by Walsh (21.49m) and Mesud Pezer of Bosnia and Herzegovina (21.33m).
Blignaut said after qualifying that he could reach the 22-metre mark on a “great day”, but that may not be necessary for a podium finish.
At Rio 2016, Walsh won the bronze with 21.36m, with Crouser’s winning distance being 22.52m, and Kovacs second with 21.78m.
But Blignaut will have to produce a big effort right from the start, with all 12 finalists only getting three throws initially. The top eight then continue with three more rounds, and that is where the South African will want to be to stay in contention.
The only previous local athlete to reach an Olympic shot put final is national record-holder Janus Robberts, who finished seventh at Sydney 2000 with a throw of 20.32m – with his SA mark at 21.97m.
Imagine Blignaut breaks that record? “I am aiming for middle 21s, which should get you top six – and you never know, maybe a medal. I know in 2016, a 21.30m medalled. So, if I can get anything above 21.30m, I’d be happy with that,” he said after the qualification round.
Meanwhile, apart from the men’s 4x100m heats on Thursday morning (4.30am SA time), the other South African involved in athletics on the day will be Wayne Snyman in the 20km race walk, which takes place in Sapporo’s Odori Park – some 830km north of Tokyo, which is also the venue for the men’s and women’s marathons, as well as the 50km race walk.
Snyman is a 36-year-old teacher from Pretoria who won the bronze medal at the 2019 African championships and placed 58th at the 2016 Rio Games, and qualified for Tokyo in March by just a single second in Slovenia – clocking 1 hour 20.59 seconds (1:20.59), just inside the required 1:21.00.