As the Olympic Games draws nearer, any one of a number of athletes could become the first Varsity Sports participants to claim an Olympic medal. Here are five of the country’s best chances at making Varsity Sports and South African history.
Rushwahl Samaai – UJ (Long jump)
Springing sensation Rushwahl Samaai is currently ranked fourth in the world in the men’s long jump and is primed to return from Rio with a medal around his neck later this year.
Samaai has leaped the world’s third and fourth best jumps of the year so far, with an 8.38m at the IAAF Diamond League in Rabat last month, and an 8.34m in April’s SA Senior Athletics Championships in Stellenbosch.
The University of Johannesburg athlete claimed a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games two years ago and at just 24 years of age, he will feel that he is in peak physical condition and should fancy his chances against the likes of Olympic gold medallist Greg Rutherford and the world’s best jumpers – Marquise Goodwin, Mike Hartfield and Fabrice Lapierre.
For the young man who grew up living in a shack in Paarl, regularly walking 10km to the local athletics track – this would be some story.
Justine Palframan – Maties (400m)
It’s hard to believe that Maties’ track star Justine Palframan is just 22-years-old. Palframan made her mark in 2011 at the African Junior World Championships, claiming silver in the 400m and gold in the 4X400m relay. In 2013 she represented South Africa at the IAAF World Championships in Russia, just 19 years of age.
In 2015 she fixed herself on the radar of the athletics world, when she ran a 51.27 in the 400m at the 2015 Summer Universiade in South Korea. Palframan, whose personal best for the 400m was two-tenths of a second quicker than Caster Semenya’s at the start of the year, has struggled with injury niggles in 2016, but is firmly back on track to push for a top three finish in the 400m in Rio.
Wayde van Niekerk – Kovsies (400m)
Wayde van Niekerk made history in March this year, when he became the first ever sprinter to run the 100m in under 10 seconds, 200m in under 20 seconds and 400m in under 44 seconds. The Capetonian’s path is destined for Rio and he seems set to stand aloft the podium come August.
At times in 2016, it’s been as though Van Niekerk breaks records at will, and most recently he ran a 31.03 seconds in the 300m in the Racers Grand Prix, becoming the third fastest in history, behind Michael Johnson and Usain Bolt. Not such bad company.
The 23-year-old recently trained with Bolt in the West Indies and had the opportunity to meet his coach, Glen Mills. You know you’re on the right path when Usain Bolt, speaking about you, says, “He has some speed. I must say, he does have some speed.”
Caster Semenya – Pukke (800m)
Semenya needs no introduction. The 800m star captured the attention of the athletics world in 2009 and nobody has taken their eyes off her since. With her powerful performances and sheer determination to claim gold at the 2016 Olympics Games, this year Semenya has run a PB of 50.74, run a world leading time of 1:56.64 in the 800m and she hasn’t been defeated.
If ever you were going to bet on a medal for South Africa, it would be this one. The more accurate question seems not to be will she win a medal, but rather which medal will she win? For Semenya there is only one goal.
“My dream, my main goal, is of course Olympic gold,” said Semenya, after running 1:56.64 in the IAAF Diamond League 800m in Rome earlier this month.
Akani Simbine – Tuks (100m)
The fastest man in South African history is right behind the world’s best. Akani Simbine, recently finished sixth at the Racers Grand Prix in Kingston, and although that would usually be a poor placing for Simbine, his competitors put it into perspective.
Jamaicans Usain Bolt, Nickel Ashmeade, Yohan Blake and Asafa Powell all finished ahead of Simbine and all in under 10 seconds. Simbine clocked a 10.01, which is just 0.05 slower than his personal best of 9.96.
Coming back from an injury, Simbine looks to continue improving on his times, as he consistently finishes the 100m around the 10 second mark. While he has stiff competition from some of the fastest men in history, Simbine has an outside chance of finishing on the podium in Rio later this year, and at 22-years-old – a very bright future in the sport.