By GARY LEMKE in Tokyo
You know the much-talked-about cardboard beds in the Olympic Village have delivered on the manufacturers’ promise that they can stand up to the rigours of a 200kg athlete when Kyle Blignaut bounds into the room and reports that he has been sleeping well.
The 21-year-old is 150kg of prime South African beef, a gentle giant if ever there was one. If you see him in a shopping mall you might have a rubber-neck moment and think it’s Springbok prop Frans Malherbe who has just walked past you. “Ja, my friends have said there’s a resemblance,” he says. “I have a few friends who play for the [Johannesburg franchise] Lions and we often get together and have a proper braai. I’m definitely going to have one this Saturday, I land at 1pm and then it’s straight off to a braai to watch the Boks hopefully beat the British & Irish Lions.”
You’d better get used to Kyle Blignaut’s name, and the face. The records will show that he finished sixth in the men’s shot put Olympic final with a distance of 21.00m at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. No real great cause for international headlines in that but be assured that there will be a different story told in three years’ time when the Paris Games swing into view.
Before then he has Athletics World Championships to negotiate next year and they are quickly followed by the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. It’s worth noting that of the five shot putters who finished in front of him in the blazing Tokyo sunshine, only New Zealander Tomas Walsh will be at the Games. Americans took gold and silver, a Brazilian finished fourth and Amanzimtoti-born Italian Zane Weir was fifth.
Then there’s the age factor. Ahead of Blignaut were athletes aged 28, 29, 30 and 32, with Weir being 25, four years older than Blignaut.
“I knew I was the youngest in the final here, born in 1999. During the Rio Games I was still at boarding school, in Grade 11 watching the competition. These guys were my heroes and it takes a big mental transition to regard them as fellow competitors now and not heroes. Having competed against them in Europe during the season helped me a lot.
“But even during this final there was a lot of banter. I’m still seen as the laaitie, but I was there to show them that I’m not. There is a lot of banter and they try to get a mental advantage, but I’m not a laaitie any more. It’s about becoming a man and throwing with the men. My mindset is one of my strengths, I really believe it. And it again came through during the final.
“Before the final I wrote down a few notes on my phone. It was going to be my reaction if I had a disappointing final, you know, you get so many WhatsApps and media asking ‘What went wrong,’ that I’d made notes. ‘Today was not to be, it was not my day’ was an example of what I wrote down. Then I looked at my notes long and hard and hit the delete button. Then I wrote down ‘Thank yous’. I had to get the negative thoughts out of my thought process.
“Today, when my first throw was 20.29m it wasn’t that good. I was ninth at that stage with five throws to come. There might have been a time, not long ago when I would be happy with that. In fact, my coach and I had at first set our goal at just making the Olympics. Then it was revised and it became making the final. Then, after making the final it became top six.
“My second throw was a no throw, so I’m ninth a third of the way through the competition. I sat down and thought to myself, ‘Do you want to be sending those today was not to be, it wasn’t my day’ messages, or was it going to be ‘Thank you’ messages. My third throw was 21.00m. I had a 20.96m with the one after that. It was the same in World Juniors where I came back with my final throw and won. I can handle pressure.
“I’d come in thinking I’d be looking between 20.80m and 21.20m so I’ve got to be happy with 21.00m. It all goes up from here. We have the world champs and Commonwealth Games coming up next year. In Paris 2024 I will have my family with me, and we can really look forward to it. I can develop a lot in three years. Most of these guys are 29-to-32 years old … hopefully I can be at the forefront of a new era.”
It’s exciting fro South Africa to have such a talented, confident and ambitious putter carrying the torch for this next generation. He is still a ‘baby’ in many areas, for instance his gym work. He only started ‘gymming’ last year, before the Covid-19 pandemic. “I found a nice gym in Sandton and my gym numbers were down. They’ve improved but I’m still an amateur in the gym. When I get my gym numbers up, which I will improve in the off-season, I can improve there and then add it to my mobility to technique to get where it can be.
“There is nothing to stop me putting 22m-plus, 22.50min the next two years. I’m an explosive athletes and I’m big mates with the sprinters and they are usually amazed when they watch me on the track. What I do is set up five or six hurdles and jump over them in 30m sprints. I’m competitive and hungry, but also very chilled off the track.”
Off track, Blignaut is one of those 21-year-olds that you can spend hours with around a braai, probably with a beer in hand as well. He’ll be shouting for the Boks on Saturday afternoon and you can be sure that when it comes to Paris 2024 the Boks will be shouting for him in the Olympic final.
Photo: Anton Geyser