Sport

TRIBUTE TO A STAR ATHLETE

South African Paralympic gold medallist Zanele Situ dies aged 52

South African Paralympic gold medallist Zanele Situ dies aged 52
Zanele Situ of the SA Paralympic team during the 2016 Rio Paralympics Team SA Farewell at OR Tambo International Airport on 31 August 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Sydney Seshibedi / Gallo Images)

The death of six-time Paralympic athlete Zanele Situ was confirmed on Wednesday. The star field athlete was the first black South African to win a Paralympic gold medal.

Star South African Paralympic athlete Ntombizanele “Zanele” Situ has died, aged 52. 

Situ became the first black South African female athlete to win a Paralympic gold medal, at Sydney in 2000. 

At the Games, she was handed the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award, one of only two South Africans to be bestowed the honour, with Natalie du Toit receiving it in 2008.

Three years later she was recognised for her achievements when the Presidency awarded her the Order of Ikhamanga (silver) for her outstanding contributions to sport.  

Sixteen years after winning her first medal at a Paralympic Games, the Maties athlete did it again, winning bronze in the javelin (F54) at the Paralympics in Rio. 

Between Sydney 2000 and Rio 2016, her career had ebbed and flowed. 

At the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, she was unable to win a medal, but the six-time Paralympian came back in 2011 to earn a bronze medal at the World Championships.  

“The news that Zanele has passed on is heartbreaking,” said Leon Fleiser, the general manager of high performance at South Africa’s Olympic body, Sascoc. “We have lost a true icon of not only South African sport, but the Paralympic world has lost a legend. 

“I got to know her extremely well over the past 20 years or so and she was simply a delightful, kind person, who rose above unbelievable adversity to become the superstar that she was. 

“I saw her behind the scenes so many times, well away from the cameras and the attention she got. She was humble, patriotic and a mother to a nation. 

“She was the flag-bearer for Team SA at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio and when she received the honour she was the proudest person on the planet. 

“It meant a great deal to her, but the No 1 priority in her life was always her daughter, Azamazi, who is now 17. 

“‘I am as proud of her as she is of me,’ Zanele would say. As the years and Games went by, she would bring that motherly element to her Paralympic teammates. She was hugely popular, loved and respected.” 

Zanele Situ of the SA Paralympic team during the 2016 Rio Paralympics Team SA Farewell at OR Tambo International Airport on 31 August 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Sydney Seshibedi / Gallo Images)

Before it began

At the age of 12, Situ lost the use of both her legs because of a tuberculosis infection in her spine and became confined to a wheelchair. 

Determined not to be held back by the challenges posed by her disability, she took up athletics in 1985. 

In 1996, Situ qualified for the World Championships in England, where she won gold medals in the javelin throw and shot put.  

At the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics Situ, then 50, told Team SA’s media: “I don’t feel 50. 

“After these Games, I will go back to Stellenbosch and train for what happens next. I don’t feel any difference with age. As long as you carry on, you feel strong, you don’t feel the age. 

“It’s something I have always done, every day. I’m not here because I’m old. I’m an athlete, like everybody else. I’m not part of the old-age squad. I’m here to compete. When you’re an athlete you mustn’t worry about age.” 

Situ is survived by her sister and her daughter. 

DA extends condolences

In a statement, the Democratic Alliance said, “At the Sydney Games in 2000, Situ made history by becoming the first black South African woman to win a Paralympic gold medal in the F54 javelin throw event. She went on to become a six-time Paralympian and multiple Paralympic medallist. 

“The DA commemorates Zanele’s sporting contribution to our country, serving as a pioneer and beacon of hope to current and aspiring Paralympians. 

“Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and loved ones during this difficult time. We mourn with the country the loss of one of our sporting giants, and a proud and true South African.” DM

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