Johannesburg - In a way, the Proteas faltering in their test series against England and the Lions not winning the Super Rugby title weren’t entirely bad things.
The parochial among us may rail against that, but having two of our team sports from the so-called big three (soccer, cricket and rugby) misfire gave us an opportunity to take a closer look at South Africa’s athletes campaigning at the IAAF World Championships in London.
At the time of writing, Team SA was lying third on the medals table, behind the US and Kenya, with two golds (Luvo Manyonga and Wayde van Niekerk), a silver (Van Niekerk) and two bronzes (Ruswahl Samaai and Caster Semenya in the 1 500m).
And the fact that Semenya is still in the reckoning for the 800m gold medal in her favoured event means the medal position could still be strengthened before the conclusion of the World Championships this evening.
While helped by the absence of the rampantly doping Russians and Jamaica taking its performance cue from Usain Bolt’s tired final individual race at championship level in the 100m, the world champs have still been an exhibition of the South Africans punching way above their weight.
This is despite the fact that their federation, Athletics SA, did just about everything in its power to limit their chances of success by selecting the smallest possible team and failing to put together a potential medal-winning 4x100m relay team.
More importantly, the world champs were instructive to us team sports-obsessed South Africans about the hard and charismatic bastards who are our athletes. Manyonga, Van Niekerk, Samaai and Semenya impressed the world, let alone South Africa.
Long-jumper Manyonga’s tale of drug addict-turned-world-beater still does a fine line in inspiring anyone who has wandered into one of life’s dark alleys and had no clue about how to fumble their way back out.
Where he could be forgiven for being cold-eyed with ambition after losing two years of what is only now becoming a career of fulfilled potential – he was a gifted junior athlete – the 26-year-old does it with an infectious smile, suggesting gratitude for every day he’s out there “playing” in the sand pit.
Van Niekerk – quiet, unassuming and personable – has had to bare his fangs after winning his third major 400m title in three years and coming to within two hundredths of a second to being the first man in 22 years to complete the longer sprint double (200m and 400m).
The 25-year-old felt he was disrespected by the implication he could well have lost the 400m final had Botswana’s Isaac Makwala been healthy to contest the race. But, where in the old days he would have suffered in silence, he voiced his displeasure – perhaps a sign he is embracing his status as the leading athlete in the world now that Bolt is on his way out.
Semenya occupies an uncomfortable spot in athletics in that the IAAF constantly seeks to prove that her genetic makeup gives her an unfair advantage. While she gets hounded with the same intensity with which dopers are pursued by the powers that be, she handles it with incredible grace.
Samaai has caught the imagination with his range of facial expressions at every no-jump, long or just plain average jump.
All told, South Africa’s athletes have so much to teach the rest of us about triumph over adversity; responsibility to one’s talent; unshakeable dedication to excellence; backing yourself wherever you come from; grace under pressure; and simply being comfortable in your own skin.
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