The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics until next year will undoubtedly have different effects on those athletes and teams who were in the running to represent Team SA this July, writes GARY LEMKE.
For some of them the initial disappointment of the postponed Games due to the Covid-19 pandemic will be replaced by a renewed determination and even confidence that the year’s delay will prove to be a blessing in disguise. Here, I’m specifically thinking of Wayde van Niekerk, Caster Semenya and Tatjana Schoenmaker.
For others, it’s another year to wait. Perhaps a year too far, with the sacrifices that have to again be made and in athletes’ bodies where the Father Time always wins. Here, I’m specifically thinking of former Olympic medallists Sunette Viljoen (javelin silver in 2016) and Bridgitte Hartley (canoeing bronze in 2012). Both would have been eyeing Tokyo 2020 as the place to draw the curtain on their stellar international careers. Both will now have another year to wait and ponder whether the sacrifices are all worth it – whether it’s from physical, mental, family or financial perspectives.
To look ahead another year, we need to look back to who won medals for South Africa at the 2016 Rio Games – a return of 10, highlighted by the incredible world-record 400m run of 43.03sec by Van Niekerk.
Van Niekerk claimed gold in that 400m, while Caster Semenya won the 800m to go with the gold she was belatedly awarded from London 2012.
Silvers were picked up by Chad le Clos (2) – he surely should also be upgraded from silver to gold in the 200m freestyle given Sun Yang’s subsequent drug-related ban – Cameron van der Burgh, Luvo Manyonga, Sunette Viljoen, rowing’s men’s coxless pair, while bronzes went to the men’s sevens rugby team and triathlete Henri Schoeman.
In the subsequent four years, Van Niekerk’s career was stalled by a freak knee injury while playing touch rugby, Van der Burgh retired, while Semenya has had to deal with draconian punishment handed down by the world governing bodies related to her testosterone levels. In 2016, as soon as Rio’s party ended, one would have expected Van Niekerk and Semenya to have been nailed-on favourites to retain their titles at Tokyo 2020. However, their personal circumstances changed so much that there would have been more hope than expectation as they headed into Tokyo this July.
Now, though, they could actually benefit from the year’s postponement and be the big winners from a Team SA perspective. Van Niekerk has only recently started climbing the steep mountain to full competitive fitness, with a couple of low-key, but eye-catching nevertheless, wins in Bloemfontein before Covid-19 stalled his progress.
It could well have been that he would not have been at full racing peak come this July, when the Tokyo Games were originally scheduled. The 12-month postponement should suit him better. Ditto Semenya, who is still suffering the blowback from the track and field governing body’s decision to ban her from competing in events from 400m to the mile. At the time of the Covid-19 lockdowns she had signalled her intention to instead prepare for the 200m at Tokyo, while she continues to contest her ban over her preferred distances.
Schoenmaker will still only be 24 next July, and will be a year more experienced and stronger. She will join Semenya and Van Niekerk and Chad le Clos as the poster attractions for Team SA.
Van Niekerk, Le Clos and triathlete bronze medallist from Rio, Henri Schoeman, will be 29. Semenya will be 30. Long-jump silver medallist Luvo Manyonga will be 30, but Viljoen will be 37 and Hartley will be 38.
The year’s postponement will have helped the Olympic dreams of some, but hurt those of others.