Wesley Botton

By Wesley Botton

Chief sports journalist

Tokyo Olympics: Team SA all set to launch medal charge

The delayed 2020 Games will finally get underway properly this weekend, with several South Africans in action.

After a shaky build-up, South Africa’s campaign will gain momentum this weekend as they launch their charge for podium places at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Having sidestepped a potential Covid crisis, the SA U-23 football team opened the nation’s campaign on Thursday in a group match against hosts Japan, and while nobody is competing on Friday, the pace will be picked up on Saturday when South African athletes compete in six sports – cycling, judo, hockey, rowing, water polo and swimming.

The squad will have its first potential medal chances on Saturday, though an early medal seems unrealistic.

Cyclists Nic Dlamini, Ryan Gibbons and Stefan de Bod will be eager to put up a fight in the men’s road race in the absence of experienced rider Daryl Impey, who pulled out of the team after struggling to recover from injury.

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And judoka Michaela Whitebooi will aim to punch above her weight when she competes in the opening round of the 48kg category on Saturday morning, with the medal contests in her event being held later in the day.

Dressage rider Tanya Seymour, who was scheduled to compete on Saturday, was forced to withdraw from the national equestrian team this week after her horse Ramoneur picked up an injury.

Besides the unrest back home when most of the team left for Tokyo, the coronavirus pandemic has made this one of the most challenging editions of the quadrennial multi-sport Games, both for the athletes and the hosts.

The showpiece will be held behind closed doors, with competitors staying in a bubble at the athletes’ village.

The SA team took a knock earlier this week when football players Thabiso Monyane and Kamohelo Mahlatsi were placed in isolation after testing positive for Covid, along with video analyst Mario Masha.

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And while the Blitzboks were released from quarantine after someone tested positive on their flight to Japan, coach Neil Powell was later placed in isolation after he too returned a positive test.

Both squads were cleared to resume training on Tuesday, however, and the football team competed on Thursday, with the rugby Sevens side playing their first matches of the group stages on Monday.

Blitzboks assistant coach Renfred Dazel and the team’s high performance manager, Marius Schoeman, are standing in for Powell while he’s in isolation.

Meanwhile, with the International Olympic Committee changing its rules to allow each nation to have one male and one female flagbearer at Friday’s opening ceremony, it was confirmed that four-time swimming medallist Chad le Clos and national women’s hockey goalkeeper Phumelela Mbande would carry the SA flag.

“As always, it was incredibly difficult to arrive at the decision as to who would carry the flag in the opening ceremony,” said SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee president Barry Hendricks.

“Both Chad and Phumelela are role models and inspirations for their respective sports and we’re proud to have them carrying the flag.”

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