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Akani Simbine will defend his 100m gold. Picture: ROGER SEDRES
Akani Simbine will defend his 100m gold. Picture: ROGER SEDRES

Team SA face a bitter battle for gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham from Friday, fighting not only hungry competitors from other countries but also the impact of their own government’s apathy towards sports funding.

Australia, England, India, Canada and New Zealand have been fixtures above SA on the medals table most of this millennium, with Scotland getting in on the action at their home event at Glasgow 2014. Kenya and Nigeria have tickled SA’s feet in the past, while Scotland and Wales, who enjoy healthy funding, threaten to knock SA to their lowest point since 1994. 

SA ended a distant 12th at their first Games since readmission at Victoria 1994, but from 1998 to 2018 they have hovered between fifth and seventh. Their gold medal count has ranged from nine to 13, achieving the maximum at their last two campaigns, in Glasgow and Gold Coast 2018. 

Gold ultimately determines a nation’s position on the table and it could be tough for SA to make double figures this time around. Nine or less in Birmingham will almost certainly see them drop below seventh in the standings, especially with the Games, once seen as more of a festival than a sporting contest, becoming increasingly competitive. 

Much will depend on SA’s swimmers. Team SA’s biggest bankers are to be found in the women’s breaststroke, where Olympic queen Tatjana Schoenmaker could spearhead a domination of the three events, having won the 100m and 200m double four years ago.

Lara van Niekerk and Kaylene Corbett will also play starring roles in this venture. Schoenmaker and Corbett should compete for the top two places in the 200m race, while Van Niekerk has the jump on Schoenmaker in the 50m sprint. The 100m race will be an interesting showdown between the two South Africans — Van Niekerk emerged victorious at the SA championships where Schoenmaker was well off her own personal best, the 1 min 04.82 that stands as the Olympic record. 

Youngsters such as Matthew Sates and Pieter Coetzé have the potential to swing things SA’s way, but it won’t be easy for the teenagers.

Chad le Clos, 30, took all three men’s butterfly crowns in 2018, but this time he isn’t even ranked the top Commonwealth entrant in any of the 50m, 100m and 200m events. Le Clos, with 17 gongs from the three previous Games, needs just two medals to become the most decorated Commonwealth competitor of all time and he will have to work hard to overhaul the two shooters who share the mark on 18, both from five editions. 

Le Clos is outside the top three in both the 50m and 100m ’fly, and is second behind England’s James Guy in the 200m butterfly, where he is aiming to win an unprecedented fourth consecutive gold.  There are no guarantees for Le Clos in the poolside relays, where SA last won a gold at Melbourne 2006.

Sates is looking to bounce back after a disappointing world championship campaign in June in Budapest, where he consistently finished behind other Commonwealth swimmers in his four main races, the 200m and 400m freestyle and individual medley.

Gold is not beyond his grasp in Birmingham, but he will almost definitely have to break SA records to get there. Schoolboy Coetzé, a danger across all three backstroke distances, particularly in the 50m and 100m, has hopefully recovered from the Covid-19 that prevented him from going to the global gala in Budapest.  

Coetzé (100m backstroke), Sates (400m freestyle), Le Clos (50m butterfly) and Schoenmaker and Van Niekerk (50m breaststroke) are all scheduled for action on Friday. 

An optimist could count at least seven swimming golds, maybe as many as 11, but keep in mind that SA have never won more than seven swimming gold at a single Games this side of isolation. 

The track and field team is looking fragile compared to 2018. Caster Semenya won the 800m and 1,500m golds four years ago, but she no longer competes in those events. Long-jump champion Luvo Manyonga is serving a ban for a doping violation and Wayde van Niekerk did not perform in time before selection in June. 

Akani Simbine is the 100m defending champion, but he faces stiff competition from Jamaican Oblique Seville and Ferdinand Omanyala, Kenya’s African champion. There are promising youngsters on the roster, like 800m runner Prudence Sekgodiso and hurdlers Zeney van der Walt and Marioné Fourie, but they are all up against faster competitors.

Lawn bowls has delivered a staple of gold for SA over the years, coming to the rescue at Glasgow 2014 with a total of five, outperforming athletics and swimming on three apiece. 

Disabled competitors such as reigning T12 100m champion Jonathan Ntutu and swimmer Christian Sadie will also play a crucial role in SA’s medal ambitions. 

Henri Schoeman won the 2018 triathlon crown, but he’s coming off a lengthy injury layoff. Wrestling has suffered a few blows in the past few years, with the deaths of a promising wrestler, in a car accident and more recently the national coach. Neither of SA’s two medallists in 2018, including 97kg champion Martin Erasmus, are returning this time. 

The Blitzboks, champions in 2014, ended fourth in 2018, will have to fight hard to get among the medals after missing out at the Tokyo Olympics last year. They kick off their tournament against Malaysia on Friday. 

Bongi Msomi’s netballers are looking to win SA’s first Commonwealth Games silverware. The cricketers under Dane van Niekerk will try to emulate the men who captured the only Games cricket gold to date, back in 1998, when Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis helped shock the star-studded Australians in the final. 


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