Pontal, Rio de Janeiro – Ernst van Dyk had a plan. Not a cunning plan, but a simple one. Cunningly simple. Get into the final corner, a 180 degree hairpin, before the rest of the field and outsprint them. After almost 60km, he did just that and his roar as he crossed the line could have been heard from Pontal on Rio’s western beachfront, to Paarl in the Western Cape.
The sweat had barely been wiped from Van Dyk’s brow than Reinhardt Hamman had given South Africa their 11th medal of the Games and their fifth gold. There are no cunning plans in javelin throwing. Hamman threw the furthest with his first throw and even further with his last. None of the others could catch him, just as defending champion Alessandro Zanardi, the former Italian formula one driver, could not catch Van Dyk. It was all down to the last corner.
“Before the race, I noticed that Zanardi had a very narrow wheelbase at the back because he wanted to be aero for the time trial,” said Van Dyk after winning his eighth medal in seven Paralympics. “But he couldn’t take the corners at speed. He was popping up on two wheels, so I knew if I got to him before that corner and forced the speed, he would have to slow down a lot. Then it would be a standing start for us both. I am so much bigger and stronger than he is. I knew they couldn’t catch me out of a tight corner like that.
“That was the plan I woke up with this morning. It’s my last cycling race. I thought it would be great just to end it with a medal, but a gold…” said Van Dyk, his voice tapering off. “I had major surgery in June, I was out for two weeks. It was tough, keeping myself together. We were in winter in South Africa and everyone was in training camps in altitude in Europe, and I was slogging away in the rain in winter. This makes it all worth it. Everything. It is just perfect.”
The cycling events were one of those affected by the cutbacks at the Games, with no television coverage. Tim de Vries from the Netherlands had attacked and got a 20-second gap. Van Dyk admitted he was worried he had wasted some energy closing down the breaks. As the final corner came up, the riders were jockeying hard, there was a crash, Van Dyk found a space and went to the front, and he never looked back. Behind him Zanardi, who lost his legs 15 years to the day in a crash at a race in Germany in 2001, was second with Jetze Plat of the Netherlands third. Van Dyk still has the wheelchair marathon on Sunday, the final event of the Paralympics.
Hamman, who has cerebral palsy, said that leading the javelin from the first throw was nerve-wracking. He also did not know what to do when he knew he had won.
“My nerves starting boiling over near the end,” said Hamman. “When the Colombian (Luis Lucumi Villegas, who took silver) threw what he threw in the sixth throw, I didn’t know whether to throw, or not to throw, or just to walk over the line or fall down flat. The excitement was overwhelming.”
Hamman decided to throw, and the javelin flew 50.96-metres, a new African record. Villegas set a new regional record with a 49.19m, while Iran’s Javad Hardani broke the Asian record with a 48.46m. Hamman’s knee had been bothering him, but he did not give up as he kept thinking about his dad, who passed away on March 8. He dedicated his medal to his father.
Anrune Liebenberg went pale and had to sit down after putting herself into the red to win silver in the 400m on Wednesday night. Her blood pressure dropped dramatically after she had gone hard early in her race, but was passed by China’s Li Lu in the final 30 metres. For the 23-year old with a left arm born shorter than her right, silver was a “blessing” after two major surgeries in the last year.
“I had quite a rough year up to now. I had two knee ops. My last knee op was on May 13, so post-op, just to be able to run again is a blessing. The first one was cartilage removal in November after the world championships. Just when I got back training fully I hurt my right knee again. I had a bucket handle tear so they removed the meniscus, 60 percent of it so I only have 40 percent. So just being here is a miracle.”