Columnists 17.8.2017 12:17 pm

The sporting wheel has come full circle

I used to have two colleagues who were constantly in each other’s hair over their favourite sports.

The one is a rugby man through and through and the other – in all due respect – an athletics nutcase. So the Monday workplace banter would follow a very similar pattern.

“I see your team lost again.’’ “Yes they did, but so did your athletes. I didn’t exactly see any of them on the podium either.’’ “Ja, but at least they were competing against some world-class opposition. They don’t have easy pickings like when the Springboks play Italy.’’ “Ag, your athletes won’t beat Italy if they arrange a meeting between just the two of them. The Boks have never lost to Italy.’’

And so rugby would trump athletics week in and week out. The rugby man would bask in the glory of two World Cup titles and a few Currie Cup titles won by his beloved Western Province over the years. But over on the track and field, there was far less to write home about. The odd Olympic medal and a handful of gongs at the World Championships came and went, but never really anything to give rugby a blood nose.

A pair of high jump golds at the World Championships in 2003 and a pair of 800m golds in 2009 were arsenal for the athletics man’s broadsides, but even on those occasions South Africa just managed to break into the top 10 of the showpiece’s medals table.

That wasn’t enough to be regarded as a world force, whereas during the same time the Springboks would regularly flirt with the No 1 spot in the world rankings, a position they last held in 2009. Even just four years ago, the South African athletics campaign returned with one bronze medal from the World Championships in Moscow, while the Boks where a few tries away from winning the Rugby Championship title.

Fast forward four years and we have a picture that neither one of the rugby or athletics man could ever foresee. The Boks are No 5 in the world rankings – having moved up from No 7 – and South African finished third on the medals table at the World Athletics Championships in London at the weekend. Yes third, ahead of China … and Great Britain … and Jamaica.

We have two Olympic champions, three world champions and Wayde van Niekerk holds a world record with Caster Semenya and Luvo Manyonga both having realistic chances of breaking world records soon. That is not to mention a whole host of others athletes of which some are already there and others developing into genuine medal contenders.

A further glance at the medals table from the World Championships in London shows me that Italy won a solitary medal – and a bronze at that – to finish in a tie for 38th place alongside the mighty Kazakhstan and Tanzania. That is a full roll of my mouse wheel and 35 places below Team South Africa.

Last time the Springboks took on Italy … the Azzurri won 20-18. Ouch.

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