Swimming has been South Africas most bankable Olympic sport since their readmission at Barcelona in 1992. Eight of their 19 medals in the Rainbow Nation era have come in the pool.
Of their four gold medals,two were claimed by breaststroke legend Penelope Heyns at Atlanta in 1996,and one by the 4x100m freestyle relay quartet of Roland Schoeman,Lyndon Ferns,Darian Townsend and Ryk Neethling,who broke the world record at Athens in 2004. But the 2008 Olympics were a massive disappointment for the South African swimmers. While they managed to break 18 national records – four of which still stand in Beijing,they didnt win a single medal at the Games.
Perhaps because of this,swimming in South Africa has seen a drop in corporate sponsorship over the last four years,causing the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) to appeal for more funding.
When help came calling,it wasnt quite in the form that SASCOC may have expected. Twelve years ago,Charlene Wittstock was part of South Africas womens 4x100m freestyle relay team,which finished fifth in the Sydney Games. Wittstock is now Princess Charlene,married to Prince Albert of Monaco. When she came to know of the swimming teams difficulties,Wittstock offered to host them in Monaco,and take care of their food,accommodation and training facilities. With their preparation taken care of,the swimmers will head to London aching to return South Africa to their former place among the sports elite.
Much of the countrys hopes will reside in the highly rated duo of Cameron van der Burgh and Chad Le Clos. Van der Burgh,24,holds three breaststroke world records,and is one of the major contenders in the 100m breaststroke,where he will look to knock Japans Kosuke Kitajima off his long-held perch.
Le Clos,meanwhile,will take part in as many as six events,but will fancy his chances most in the 200m butterfly,an event that won him gold at the 2010 World Championships (short course) in Dubai. But he will be up against some of the best,including Michael Phelps,whose eight golds at Beijing included the 200m butterfly.
South Africas squad,meanwhile,will also include the 21-year-old Darren Murray,who will make history as the countrys first black swimmer at the Olympics. Murray,who will take part in the 200m backstroke,is among six athletes selected with a long-term view towards giving them as much high-quality international exposure as possible before the 2016 Olympics.