Sprinting men make SA Olympic history as women come up short
South Africa’s speedsters have achieved an Olympic first by filling all nine spots available to them across the three men’s sprints for the Tokyo Games.
For the first time since track-and-field events were limited to a maximum of three entries per nation nearly a century ago, SA is delivering a full house in the 100m, 200m and 400m.
The eight sprinters account for nearly a third of SA’s 26 individual athletes who made World Athletics’ Olympic rankings when the qualifying window closed early Wednesday (SA time).
From fielding just two sprinters at London 2012, Anaso Jobodwana and Oscar Pistorius, the benefits of SA’s so-called sprint revolution over the past several years are visible.
But only five women made the cut, making it the country’s second-smallest post-isolation female track-and-field contingent of Atlanta 1996.
There is a chance that 400m hurdler Zeney van der Walt could still squeeze in, but she will need one of the 39 qualified athletes to withdraw between now and early next week, when entries must be finalised.
SA’s marathon runners also filled their three spots, but it’s the sprinters who carry three of SA’s four athletics medal hopes in Tokyo —reigning 400m champion Wayde van Niekerk, 100m ace Akani Simbine and the men’s 4x100m relay team.
The fourth podium prospect is Ruswahl Samaai, one of two long-jumpers who are basically sprinters who enjoy playing in sand.
But elsewhere in the sport locally there are major gaps that should cause administrators sleepless nights.
The drop in women comes straight after their largest contingent, 13, at Rio 2016.
The total team size is down from 39 five years ago, and there are several areas of concern.
Remember when Hezekiel Sepeng and Mbulaeni Mulaudzi won Olympic silver medals in the 800m at Atlanta 1996 and Athens 2004? Not a single qualifier in the men’s race for Tokyo.
In fact, of the four track events from 800m to 10,000m, in both the men and women, only Dominique Scott and Precious Mashele have qualified.
Remember when Hestrie Cloete and Jacques Freitag ruled world high jump in 2003? No qualifiers there.
SA used to fill all three men’s 400m hurdles berths, but now Soks Zazini is the sole representative.
Of SA’s 26 athletes, 22 made it by achieving automatic qualifying standards and four through world rankings.
They were Jobodwana, the 2015 world championship 200m bronze medallist, and Thapelo Phora, Marc Mundell and Jo-Ane van Dyk, all last-placed qualifiers in the 400m, 50km walk and women’ javelin.
Of the 26, 15 are veterans of Rio. The three returning women are Scott, Irvette van Zyl and Wenda Nel. Comrades queen Gerda Steyn and Van Dyk are newcomers.
Yet three of SA’s four track and field medallists from Rio will not be in action in Tokyo.
Caster Semenya, not willing to take testosterone-lowering medication to remain in the 800m in which was the two-time Olympic champion, opted to switch to the 5,000m where she was unable to meet the qualifying time.
Long-jumper Luvo Manyonga has been banned for a doping violation and Sunette Viljoen, the javelin silver medallist in Rio, was unable to qualify.
The men will have a few names added to the squad to fill up the 4x100m and 4x400m relay squads.
Van der Walt missed out on qualifying by a single spot on the world rankings, which use points calculated from performances.
Van der Walt, with 1,188 points, was a mere single point behind the last-placed qualifier. Like Van der Walt, Van Dyk started Thursday morning one spot outside the qualifiers, but had moved up one position by the afternoon.
There are names to be struck off. World Athletics has until now retained on its qualifying lists athletes with doping violations. Many of those athletes are expected to drop off.
Three South Africans either banned or suspended for doping violations were on the final ranking lists on Thursday morning — Manyonga, Carina Horn (women’s 100m) and Lebogang Shange (men’s 20km race walk).
While Manyonga, who was recently banned, is certain to fall off, both Horn and Shange are still listed as provisionally suspended.
Shange successfully lobbied to have his suspension temporarily lifted last month so he could try qualify for the Games, and he competed in two events before the suspension was reinstated on Wednesday.
But there must be something amiss that a nation has almost as many “qualified” athletes with doping violations as it does qualified women.
SA athletics qualifiers:
Akani Simbine (100m), Gift Leotlela (100m), Shaun Maswanganyi (100m, 200m), Clarence Munyai (200m), *Anaso Jobodwana (200m), Wayde van Niekerk (400m), Zakhiti Nene (400m), *Thapelo Phora (400m), Precious Mashele (5,000m), Antonio Alkana (110m hurdles), Sokwakhana Zazini (400m hurdles), Cheswill Johnnson (long jump), Ruswahl Samaai (long jump), Kyle Blignaut (shot put), Jason van Rooyen (shot put), Rocco van Rooyen (javelin), Stephen Mokoka (marathon), Desmond Mokgobu (marathon), Elroy Gelant (marathon), Wayne Snyman (20km race walk), *Marc Mundell (50km race walk), Men’s 4x100m, Men’s 4x400m.
Dominique Scott (5,000m, 10,000m), Wenda Nel (400m hurdles), Gerda Steyn (marathon), Irvette van Zyl (marathon), *Jo-Ane van Dyk (javelin).
* Qualified on world rankings