September 1, 2008
United Behind Our Athletes
By Mariechen Puchert
East London, Eastern Cape, SOUTH AFRICA As a South African teenager, I realize the great honor of the Olympics. Due to our country's previous apartheid regime, South Africa was banned from 95 percent of international sports from the 1970s to the early 90s.
Being a country with 11 different cultures and languages, sport is also one of the few things that unite us all, regardless of the still-existing racial tensions of today.
There was never a prouder moment than when our men's relay swimming team beat the world record at the 2004 Olympics, or when Natalie du Toit was the first amputee to qualify for able-bodied Olympic swimming.
Needless to say, we were expecting great things.
But then, disappointment is part of the world of sports.
The first embarrassment involved a swimmer that went home on account of the pollution. That is his human right, of course, but very much strengthens the stereotype of sports stars as people who expect to be treated as royalty.
Then came our staggering defeat in the swimming section thought to be our strongest. At least du Toit came in 16th in the womens 10km marathon, which is better than most of the world can do with TWO legs!
A lot of pressure for a medal was placed on Sifiso Nhlapo, South Africa's only BMX racer to qualify for the Olympics (and that after having to borrow a bicycle for the trials) and when he suffered that devastating fall in the finals, South Africans gasped and cried for him.
South Africa has been ranked 71st in the medal count, below Zimbabwe, whom we so easily criticize.
One might say that the 2008 Olympics were a shame to South Africans, but I would beg to differ.
For 16 days, I saw my country united.
Beggars stood with old radios or in front of television dealers to catch a snippet of information.
My friends wrote notes of expectation and disappointment on Facebook.
We felt our athletes' pain, and when they return to their communities, we will treat them as heroes and not as failures, for they have still managed to do what 99 percent of us could not.
There are those who wish to scold our athletes, but they do not understand the true spirit of the Olympics and they are too blind to see the unified spirit our country has displayed in supporting our sports stars.
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