Columnists 18.8.2016 11:20 am

The long race from Germiston to Rio

I fondly remember a time when this laaitie couldn’t wait for TopSport’s live crossing to the local athletics meeting on a Friday night.

Watching the likes of Charmaine Gale contesting the high jump and Jean Verster go in the 800 would whet the appetite during the broadcast from the Herman Immelman Stadium before the evening’s main sprint events would have my adrenaline really pumping.

My ritual was to see if anybody could beat the flying Yvette de Klerk before turning my attention to cheering for my favourite sprinter Tshakile Nzimande.

In a county where athletes competed in a cocoon due to its politically-induced sporting isolation, little did I know at the time how big – and far ahead of us – the world of athletics really was.

When De Klerk settled into the blocks, the national record shown on the television screen in our living room belonged to her. And when Nzimande lined up for the 100, he was chasing the record of the guy who probably ran in the lane next to him, Johan Rossouw. Then, like most of our sports at the time, after the euphoria of being allowed to compete against the rest of the world again in the early 90s came the reality check.

Just like we couldn’t expect a group of Currie Cup players to beat the best rugby teams in the world or guys who grew up on pacey South African wickets to tame sharp-turning spinners from the subcontinent, so too we simply couldn’t be a force on the global athletics track after being restricted to a world ruled by the likes of De Klerk, Rossouw and Nzimande for so long.

That did not mean we didn’t have athletes who performed on the world stage. You merely have to think back to Elena Meyer’s historic silver medal run in the 10 000m at the Barcelona Olympics as one of many memorable moments down the years, which also include another six silver and two bronze medals.

But sadly they were few and far between, and during 24 years after readmission, Josiah Thugwane’s surprise win in the marathon in Atlanta in 1996 was South Africa’s only athletics gold at the Olympics. But then Wayde van Niekerk entered the equation, and not only did he run to an emphatic gold medal in the 400 in Rio on Sunday, but he also ushered in a new era for South African athletics.

Unlike Thugwane, his performance is very far from being a flash in the pan, taking into account that he is the first South African to hold the world and Olympic titles at the same time – and also the world record of course. And Van Niekerk isn’t flying solo either.

In Beijing, where he became the world champion last year, Anaso Jobodwana scooped a bronze in the 200 and, completely overshadowed by Van Niekerk’s heroics in Rio, Akani Simbine ran a brave race in the 100 final to cross the finish line in fifth place.

Suddenly South Africa have a star in each of the 100m, 200m and 400m sprints who already inspire many pretenders. Plus Caster Semenya who looks set to take gold in the 800 in Rio at the weekend.

There will be striking similarities in the Friday night meetings following Rio to the ones I so vividly remember from my childhood. Sure, they won’t be in Germiston but rather Monaco, and this time the rest of the world will be competing, but when the 400m starts, a certain South African will be favourite to win. And even better … it will be his record shown on the screen!

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