The Olympic medals around their necks were not all Cameron van der Burgh and Chad le Clos won in 2012. By KEN BORLAND.
Winners abound in sport and at the London Olympics there were 590 sportsmen and women who earned gold medals. But none of them could possibly be more charming, good-natured and likeable than the two South African swimmers who won immense respect not only for their performances against the odds, but also for the way in which they conducted themselves.
Swimming is not the easiest sport in which to excel. From a young age, hopefuls have to spend hours, normally around the crack of dawn, training in the water. It’s cold and we all know what else happens in water when people spend hours in it...
Swimming meetings take a long time and only those at the absolute pinnacle of the sport get to make large sums of money out of it. For South Africans, there is the added complication of the sport not being part of the mainstream and our young talent has to put up with sub-standard facilities and financial hardship, or go and train in one of the swimming powerhouses like the United States. Countries like the US, China, Australia and Japan boast massive swimming programmes and yet our “underprivileged” South African swimmers can still beat them on the greatest stage.
For Le Clos to win the 200m butterfly, he had to overcome his childhood hero and the greatest Olympic swimmer ever, Michael Phelps.
Van der Burgh had to put the tragic death, just three months earlier, of his friend and competitor Alex Dale Oen, who died of a heart attack aged 26, behind him as he won the 100m breaststroke in a world record time.
Winning Olympic gold does not come easy and Van der Burgh typified the determination required when, as a 16-year-old, he broke his ankle but kept going to gym to keep the rest of his body toned.
Van der Burgh’s younger years were clouded by a mild form of ADD, with his parents pushing him in the direction of sport rather than Ritalin, which dampened his spirit.
Even his preparation for the 2012 Games was disrupted, with coach Dirk Lange moving back to Germany and his local coach also leaving the country unexpectedly. Van der Burgh had to fly to Richard’s Bay for two days a week to work on technical matters with a former coach, Francois Boshoff. And then he flew Lange out for some intensive training just before the Olympics.
Van der Burgh, the first South African-based swimmer to win Olympic gold, was followed to the top of the podium two days later by Le Clos, the 2012 African Swimmer of the Year, coincidentally taking the title from his countryman who had won it the previous three years.
The 20-year-old Le Clos, with his boyish smile and the most supportive of fathers at poolside, was one of the media darlings of the 2012 London Games and was the most Googled South African of the year.
If he can ensure the trappings of celebrity don’t undermine his day job, then Le Clos can begin positioning himself as Phelps’ successor as the King of the Pool. The determination and the brilliant way in which he executed the race-day strategy in beating Phelps in London show Le Clos has what it takes to increase the medal haul from one gold and one silver when Rio 2016 comes around. DM
Photo: South Africa's London 2012 Olympic games gold medalist swimmers, Cameron van der Burgh (R) and Chad le Clos show off their medals as they are welcomed by fans at the O.R Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg August 9, 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko