Why the next 48 hours are critical for Team SA at the Tokyo Olympic Games
By the time most South Africans wake up on Tuesday morning, Tatjana Schoenmaker should have won the country’s first Olympic medal at the Tokyo Games.
After four days at the previous two showpieces at London 2012 and Rio 2016, SA had won two medals; five years ago they went on to a haul of 10, and nine years ago it was six.
By the end of Monday the class of 2021 had suffered four medal misses, and veteran Chad le Clos nearly became No 5 after qualifying for the 200m butterfly semifinals in 16th place on Monday evening.
He went 1min 55.96sec to finish fifth in his heat, behind favourite Kristof Milak of Hungary, who touched in 1:53.58. Le Clos’s training partner, Ethan du Preez, went 1:58.50.
At Rio 2016, Le Clos went 1:55.57 in the heats for the third-best time, and at London 2012 he went 1:55.23, which ranked him fourth overall.
His time in 2021 would have qualified easily at the previous two Games, but it scraped him into the top 16 by only eight-hundredths of a second on Monday.
Le Clos, the champion in this event in 2012 and fourth in 2016, will need to go faster in Tuesday’s semifinals to secure a spot in Wednesday’s final.
“Obviously I’ve got to bring a better game tomorrow and get in the final and see what happens,” he said afterwards, admitting he initially thought he had missed out on a semifinal spot.
“I’m confident in the semis and final always,” he added. “I feel good, I feel confident, I’m still very confident.”
The Blitzboks were good value for their two victories on Monday, beating Ireland 33-14 and Kenya 14-5.
On Tuesday morning they take on the US in a critical match to determine the winner of Group C. The loser will almost certainly face New Zealand in the quarterfinals later in the day, while the winner seems set to take on Argentina.
The semifinals and final are on Wednesday.
Two of SA’s medal hopes missed out on Monday.
Rio 2016 bronze medallist Henri Schoeman had to abandon the triathlon after the pain of a recent ankle injury became unbearable. He had been in the lead group after the swim and cycle legs, but after 2km into the run he was done.
Then mountain biker Alan Hatherly, a more distant medal hope, finished an impressive eighth after a poor start that saw him slip to 31st at one point.
On Sunday cyclist Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, also a distant hope in the women’s road race, ended 13th, but the elimination of the men’s four rowers, who were proper contenders, was a real blow.
Team SA started the Olympics with 13 medal hopes, but by the end of Monday that had been whittled down to nine shots remaining — and no medals yet.
The next 48 hours are critical to SA’s fortunes, with four medal chances. Schoenmaker was set to kick off that run in the 100m breaststroke final on Tuesday morning.
Then on Wednesday, Le Clos, the Blitzboks and Moolman-Pasio in the individual time trial are the contenders, at least on paper.
On Friday Schoenmaker will hopefully claim the 200m breaststroke gold.
And after that there are just four more hopes remaining, all in track and field — Akani Simbine (100m), Wayde van Niekerk (400m), long-jumper Ruswahl Samaai and the men’s 4x100m relay.
By the time most SA fans wake up on Tuesday, they will have a good idea of how SA might fare.