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Athletics, BMX action galore

By Mark Etheridge

South African sports fans are spoilt for choice over the next few days with both a world championship and continental championship being contested.

First up and furthest away is the 17th CAA African Athletics Championships in Nairobi, Kenya. That kicks off Wednesday 28 July while the World BMX Championships will be held in Pietermaritzburg between Thursday and Sunday (29 July-1 August).

South Africa have always fared well in the African Championships and this year’s edition should be no different. The big battle is normally between us and Kenya and at the last edition of the event in Addis Ababa, South Africa won 22 medals to Kenya’s 16.

Traditionally it’s been Kenya’s track talent versus South Africa’s field strength and it shouldn’t be that different this time out.

Not to say that South Africa are exactly weak on the track. Our biggest star in recent years, Mbulaeni Mulaudzi needs step back for no-one, not even at the relatively advanced age of 29. That, he proved by winning the 800-metre title at last year’s World Championships in Berlin.

He’s going to find it tough in Nairobi though, coming up against home boy David Rudisha. The defending African champion has a 1min 41.52sec best this year already and the 21-year-old is unbeaten in five starts going into the championships.

Countering that statistic though is the fact that Mulaudzi’s a man for the big occasion, as his world title, and two-time world indoor title bear testimony. It could be a case of sheer talent v tactical nous this time out.

Thankfully, the duo won’t have Sudanese star Abubaker Kaki (himself a two-time world indoor champion) to contend with as he is helping anchor his country’s 4x400m relay team.

Our other dependable star is Khotso Mokoena, another man for the occasion, this time in the long-jump. But there must be some doubt hanging over Mokoena. He’s been troubled by an ankle problem and hasn’t jumped competitively since May. The Olympic silver-medallist comes up again Senegal’s Ndiss Kaba Badji, best African this year with an 8.27m effort (Mokoena has an 8.15m) and the 2006 continental champion Ignasious Gaisah of Ghana (8.09m this year).

The middle distances are traditionally East Africa’s strength and nothing changes this time out. Kenya have the Olympic 1500m champion Asbel Kiprop in the men’s 1500m, although he would have taken notice of his compatriot, young Silas Kiplagat, who blitzed to the fastest 1500m time in the world for the last few years, when he dipped under 3:30 in Monaco last week. Ethiopian Mekonnen Gebremedhin, fourth at the World indoor championships is also worth watching while South African hopes will rest with US based bronze medallist from the last African championships, Juan Van Deventer.
West Africa traditionally dominate the sprint events with Ghana and Nigeria expected to fight for the spoils although our Simon Magakwe tops the continental rankings in the 200m.
Still on the track and LJ Van Zyl is the defending 400m hurdles champion and despite a patchy display in his last outing in Monaco where he failed to break the 49sec barrier, he will still be confident of retaining his title.

It’s in the field events though that South Africa has a golden glow. Chris Harmse (hammer) Simone du Toit (shot put), Elizna Naude (discus) and Sunette Viljoen (javelin) are all continental champions and the men’s shot put, with three big South Africans starting, means some sort of medal is almost a given.

Back to BMX though and four great days of racing are expected, with riders all around the globe converging on the cutting edge course built for the track at the Royal Showgrounds.

South Africa have a few medal chances, with the high-profile Sifiso Nhlapo expected to grab much of the media attention after his comeback from a nasty neck injury in Norway last year.

Manager Mark Squire took time out to sum up his charge’s preparations. “Thankfully his fitness levels are great and he is back to where he was before he crashed, he doesn’t even think about the neck injury anymore. He’s riding well, nice and smoothly and the power is back.

“It was frustrating having to take the physical aspect slowly as his body wanted to recover while he wanted to go faster. But by listening to his body his physical strength is back and the hardest part of the recovery getting into race condition was sorted going to the States in the build-up.

“I think the turning point for his recovery mental and race prep for the worlds all happened in the last month in the US where he beat Sam Willoughby and Maris Stromberg on numerous occasions through heats. They are most probably the two biggest competitors out there at the moment. So making five out of the last six main events with the field that will be at Worlds he’s definitely right on track.”

But as Squire acknowledges, BMX is a lottery. Remember Nhlapo crashed out of the final at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the standard is constantly rising.

“The level has increased dramatically since the Olympics. The reality is that anyone who gets through the time trials and qualifies (which is the top 64) can win it… its a tough field, and realistically, any of the top 32 can win it.”

Summing up Skizo’s chances, Squire says: “We have to accept that the injury is past tense now, I think any rider who races a home World Champs will put a little more pressure on themselves to win. Skizo’s strong point is performing under pressure for some reason he rises to the occasion every time.”

Lets hope that it’s to the very top during the next few days.