SA carries torch for Southern Africa – Little cheer for African athletes in Rio
By Robson Sharuko
WAYDE van Niekerk provided the standout individual performance of the 2016 Rio Olympics, touching the heavens with a magical 400-metre show, but South Africa’s medal haul will certainly not mask the gloom of failure across Southern Africa, as the region’s finest athletes came terribly short in Brazil.
The South Africans captured two gold, including Van Niekerk’s sensational world record-breaking 400-metre sprint, six silver and two bronze for one of the country’s best medal hauls at the Olympics in history, a stunning turnaround from the failed adventure in Beijing – eight years ago – where the Rainbow Nation won only one bronze medal.
Caster Semenya overcame the tsunami of controversy, triggered by her participation in Brazil, to finally secure an 800-metre Olympic gold after destroying the field in the final 300 metres of the race.
Even in triumph, there were still questions, notably from one of the women she faced in the race for gold in Rio, about whether Semenya should have been allowed to be part of the cast that lined up for the 800 metre final.
But, refreshingly, others provided a blanket of support for the South African with Madeleine Pape, an Australian athlete who represented her country in the 800-metre race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, Germany, backing Semenya.
“As Semenya crossed the finish line in Rio to become the Olympic champion in the women’s 800m, some television commentators offered only lukewarm appraisals of her achievement while others expressed outright dismay that she had been allowed to compete freely in the first place,” Pape, who is now a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argued on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website.
“It’s time for the athletics community to confront the reality that opposition to Semenya is invariably the product of poor leadership and convenient ignorance.
“Semenya is as deserving an Olympic champion as we’ll ever see. I don’t know where she falls on the gender spectrum, and frankly I don’t care.
“The witch-hunt of Semenya smacks of archaic resistance to the reality that we women are naturally diverse. Some of us are simply better than others, but all of us are equally women.
“This is a biological and social fact that we’re mostly happy to celebrate. Not so in the sport of athletics, where the IAAF is keen to limit the heterogeneity of women competing at the elite level. “
The Gauteng branch of the ruling African National Congress of South Africa also rallied behind Semenya.
“She remains a hero to many in SA and we will defend her from skewed conceptions of femininity in sport #WeSupportCaster #HandsOffCaster,” it tweeted.
South African President, Jacob Zuma, congratulated his country for its success in Rio which bettered the two gold, four silver and four bronze they won in Finland 64 years ago but fell just short of the three gold, four silver and three bronze which the Rainbow Nation won in Belgium in 1920.
The three gold, four silver and three bronze, which South African athletes mined in the Belgian city of Antwerp, 96 years ago, remains a benchmark of success for South Africa at the Olympics.
“We are immensely proud of the South African team for their outstanding performance at the Olympics games this year and for making and smashing national and world records,” said President Zuma.
“The team has once again put the country on the global map and proved indeed that we are a winning nation. We also thank the people of South Africa for their full support of our athletes.”
South Africa finished in 30th place, on the final medals table, only second to Kenya among the African nations, and by far the best performers from Southern Africa.
Ethiopia, with eight medals, one gold, two silver and five bronze, was the only other African nation in the top 50 on the final medals table with continental powerhouse, Nigeria, bringing home just one medal, a bronze, after their Olympic football team beat Honduras in the third place play-off.
But while the South Africans have reason to celebrate their achievements in Rio, the other Southern African nations – Angola, Botswana, Comoros, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe – came home without a medal from Rio.
Botswana star Nijel Amos, who was expected to do well in the 800 metres in Rio after winning silver in London 2012, crashed out in the heats in one of the biggest surprises of the Brazil showcase.
South Africa was the leading Southern African nation at the London 2012 Olympics, finishing in 23rd place on the final medals table, after winning three gold, two silver and one bronze.
Swimmers Cameron van der Burgh, in the 100 metres backstroke, and Chad le Clos, in the 200 metres butterfly, won gold medals for South Africa in London to add to the gold won by the country’s men lightweight coxless fours team in rowing.
Le Clos also won silver in London while Semenya took silver in the 800 metres. Four years earlier, in Beijing, Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry had produced the standout show for Southern Africa, winning four medals, a gold and three silver, to consolidate her status as Africa’s greatest Olympian of all-time.
Coventry won gold in the 200m backstroke and silver in the 400 metres individual medley, 100 metres backstroke and 200 metres individual medley while Ngonidzashe Makusha’s bid for an Olympic medal was shattered after he lost the battle for the bronze, in the long jump, by just a centimetre having sat in second place after the first three jumps in the final.
Coventry’s medals were enough to give Zimbabwe 39th place, on the final medals table, while South Africa – with only a silver medal won by Godfrey Khotso Mokoena in the long jump – finished in 70th place on that table.