South African Athletics Awakens

Something special is brewing in South African athletics.  There is sufficient evidence to suggest the sport is on the up.  Already in July Wayde Van Niekerk won the 400 metres at the Diamond League Meeting in Paris in 43.96 seconds to become only the fourth South African to count among the top ten on the IAAF all-time lists for specific events.  Last week Van Niekerk set a new national 200m record and became the first South African to dip below 20 seconds over this distance to add to his growing reputation.
Perennial javelin contender Sunette Viljoen finished third on the same night with a best distance of 63.15 metres.  Wenda Nel finished fifth in the 400-hurdles in a time of 54.61 seconds for her second fastest time of the season.  Nel’s best time of 54.37 seconds is still one of the ten fastest for this season.
Lebogang Shange bettered the South African 5 000m race walk record with a time of 18 minutes and 56.84 seconds, nearly 32 seconds faster than Chris Britz’s record time of 19:29.24 set in 1997, earlier this month.  What makes Shange’s performance even more remarkable is that it was the fourth time this season that he improved on a national record, each time over a different distance.  The only official national records that Shange has not yet managed to make his own are the 10km race walk and the 10 000 metres track record … well, not yet anyway.
Sprinting is specifically an area of excitement after Akani Simbine won the 100 metres at the World Student Games in Gwangju, South Korea, in a time of 9.97 seconds.  That sprint equalled the South African record set by Henrico Bruintjies just four days earlier.  In the 47 years since Jim Hines (US) became the first athlete to break through the psychological 10 seconds barrier by running the 100 metres in 9.95 seconds, no South African was able to follow suit.  But now, suddenly, two South Africans managed to do so three times in eight days.
The country’s ‘sprint revolution’ continued in Madrid two weekends ago when Carina Horn sprinted to a time of 11.06s (+1.2m/s wind) in the 100 metres, equalling Evette De Klerk’s 25-year-old South African record in the process.  Horn finished third in the final of the World Challenge Meeting in a time of 11.10s.  This was also a historic performance because De Klerk and Geraldine Pillay (11.07s) are the only other local sprinters who were able to dip under 11.10s previously.
LJ Van Zyl has also been revitalised this year, dipping under 49 seconds three times in a row already in recent Diamond League meetings while Nel and Anaso Jobodwana (200m) have also done well at various Diamond League Meetings, particularly in Lausanne, Switzerland.   Team South Africa’s showing at the recent World Student Games in Gwangju, South Korea was also encouraging.  This country colleted a total of five medals (two gold and three bronze), all achieved in athletics.

The naysayers might point out that South Africa is nowhere near the United States of America in athletics achievements and a handful of records or podium finishes in a three-week period is nothing to write home about.  The reality is that South Africa is not a world power in the sport.  A quick glimpse at the country’s showing in the sport at the Olympic Games reveals one gold, seven silver and two bronze medals, a total of ten at six Games, averaging 1.7 medals per Olympiad.

At IAAF World Championships, since 1993, the country has seven gold, six silver and five bronze medals.  That is a total of 18 medals across  11 tournaments averaging around 1.6 medals per meeting but bear in mind that South Africa returned empty-handed on four of those occasions.  Moreover World Championships performances has not necessarily translated into Olympic glory.  Indeed only Hestrie Cloete, Mbulaeni Mulaudzi and Caster Semenya performed similarly at a World Championships and again an Olympics a year later.  This was true of Cloete and Mulaudzi in relation to 2003 and 2004, while Semenya was second in her event in 2011 and again in 2012.

The implication then is that at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing from 22–30 August, South Africa can expect a good showing.  Now that does not mean SA will be up near the top of the medals table but it does mean that the country could look forward to an admirable effort.  Moreover the form shown by the country’s athletes just of late bodes well ahead of the Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro next year.

SASCOC has targeted 10 medals in Rio and inevitably the pundits will take their hands out from their pockets in an attempt to calculate where those 10 will come from.  Swimming is looking good, rowing is doing well, the Blitzbokke will be expected to deliver a medal and by the looks of things athletics is ready to come to the party as well.  Yes it is still a long way out from Rio 2016 but there is a sense that the county can justifiably dare to dream.