Hurdles ahead? SA's Olympic hopefuls on the future of sport

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics off the table thanks to the coronavirus, we talk to some of the exceptional athletes who should have been there this month, making us proud

12 July 2020 - 00:02 By
Olympic gold medallist Caster Semenya.
Olympic gold medallist Caster Semenya.
Image: Charles Platiau/Reuters

Olympic gold medallist Caster Semenya, marathon runner Gerda Steyn, long jumper Ruswahl Samaai, and long-distance runner Stephen Mokoka are four South African athletes whose dreams of representing their country in Tokyo this month were dashed by the coronavirus pandemic.

But they're keeping their heads up and their feet pounding the road as they prepare for the Games, now postponed to 2021.

We asked them:

Your road to the Olympics?

Caster Semenya (CS): I knew I was good at running when I won the Commonwealth Youth Games in 2008.

Gerda Steyn (GS): I didn't know I could run until I was 24 years old. Last year I ran the TCS New York City Marathon in 2:27:48 (she came 11th overall) and qualified for the Olympic Games.

Marathon runner Gerda Steyn.
Marathon runner Gerda Steyn.
Image: Anesh Debiky/Gallo Images

Ruswahl Samaai (RS): After watching the Beijing Olympics in 2008 I knew I wanted to be an Olympian. Anything is possible if you're willing to put in the hard yards.

Stephen Mokoka (SM): I grew up hearing about Olympics on the radio. By 2004, we had TV and I could watch the Games along with millions of other people. I wanted to be a part of that.

Most inspirational sports star?

CS: Myself. I've achieved so many of my goals.

GS: Frith van der Merwe with a marathon best time of 2:27. She didn't get the opportunity to become an Olympic athlete - SA was banned at that time due to apartheid.

RS: I'm my own iconic sporting star. I was told to go work and stop playing around with a sport that wouldn't get me anywhere. But I kept focused. I kept walking that 10km through violent neighborhoods to get to the track, get my work done and return home safely. Through hard work, faith and perseverance, today I'm one of the best long jumpers in the world.

SM: Footballer Zinedine Zidane. I hope one day I can inspire people from disadvantaged areas - I know what it's like to grow up there.

You should be in tokyo. What are you doing instead?

CS: Spending time with family - a blessing.

GS: Not being able to compete in my first games is heartbreaking but I haven't lost my motivation or passion for running.

RS: I'm trying to keep active, do the work and make the best of what I have.

SM: I've been home playing it safe and exercising when I can.

How do you imagine the future of sport?

CS: Our current leaders are messing up the future of sport. Their leadership style sucks and they're suffering from myopia. We have big problems to face.

GS: It's an exciting moment. Female running has come a long way since 1984 when Joan Benoit became the first female Olympic marathon gold medallist. The marathon record was shattered again only last year.

RS: I see it as becoming more equal: no political influence, no racial nor any other sort of discrimination. Sport has the power to unite us - that's what we should strive for.

Long-distance runner Stephen Mokoka.
Long-distance runner Stephen Mokoka.
Image: Chris Ricco/BackpagePix

SM: There's more awareness of health, more women are taking part - it's being used for social cohesion and job creation.

What would you say to kids who want to become Olympic athletes?

CS: Follow your heart and work hard, know what you want and educate yourself.

GS: Keep putting in the work, don't let anyone tell you you're not good enough.

RS: The same thing I tell myself: Believe it. Dream it. Achieve it.

SM: See what you are good at, draft goals and follow a plan. Live like an Olympian - eat, sleep, train, walk and speak like an Olympian.

A moment that stands out for you in Olympic history?

CS: The London 2012 Olympic 800m race. I was at the back and don't know how I got to the front. That's the best I've ever done in a race - to come back like that.

GS: When Wayde van Niekerk broke Michael Johnson's 400m world record at the Rio Olympic Games.

Long jumper Ruswahl Samaai.
Long jumper Ruswahl Samaai.
Image: Pat Scaasi/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

RS: It has to be the 1936 Berlin, Germany Olympics when Jesse Owens won four gold medals and achieved a world record in the men's long jump.

SM: The 2016 Rio Olympics. I finished 19th on a 10,000m track with 27.50 - my best time. I also watched Wayde van Niekerk break the world record live.

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