SA’s ath­letes come bear­ing life’s lessons

CityPress - - Sport - Simnikiwe Xabanisa sports@city­press.co.za Fol­low me on Twit­ter @Simx­a­ban­isa

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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