South Africa’s first medal at the London Olympic Games has been lauded by sports minister Fikile Mbalula.
“We are now counted amongst the best in the world,” Mbalula said in a statement late last night.
Earlier in the evening, Cameron van der Burgh secured the gold medal in the men’s 100m breaststroke, in a world record time, to leave the SA team in tied 13th place in the medals table after two days of competition.
Mbalula said he had spoken to Van der Burgh earlier in the week.
The swimmer had assured him the team would recover after Banyana Banyana lost their opening match of the women’s football tournament on Wednesday.
“Cameron told me that what happened to Banyana in Coventry should not damper the country’s spirit, as the South African flag will be raised high when he accepts the gold medal,” Mbalula said.
“Indeed, today I was touched when he broke the world record.”
In rugby, cricket and soccer-mad South Africa, Van der Burgh is rare and among swimmers as something of a celebrity. Unlike a lot of top international swimmers he has resisted the temptation to train in the United States and until recently trained in a 25 metre pool in his local gym.
But he tightened up his training – moving to an Olympic-size pool and improving his nutrition – in the run up to 2012, shaving seconds off his time.
Van der Burgh trains under the tutelage of German coach Dirk Lange and Ryk Neethling, a veteran swimmer and the first South African to compete in four successive Olympic Games.
Records tumbles in at the Olympic pools last night.
Records were tumbling in the Olympic pool, starting with American Dana Vollmer’s 100m butterfly triumph in 55.98sec.
Vollmer became the first woman to dip under 56 seconds in the event, bettering the previous world mark of 56.06 set by Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom in 2009. Third at the turn, she powered home to beat China’s Lu Ying by 89-hundredths of a second.
“It was everything I could have dreamed it would have been,” said Vollmer, who failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympic team after earning relay gold as a teenager in Athens.
Lu took silver in 56.87sec while Australia’s Alicia Coutts rallied from last at the turn — and recovered from a throat-full of water with 15m remaining — to take bronze in 56.94.
The world records for Vollmer and van der Burgh were the second and third of the London Games, where many predicted records would be hard to come by as the marks established in the era of the now-banned high-tech bodysuits linger on the books.
Van der Burgh dedicated his gold medal to his late training partner Alexander Dale Oen of Norway, who was at an Arizona training camp in April when he died of heart failure as the result of a blood clot.
“I don’t really care about the world record,” said van der Burgh, who finished ahead of Australian Christian Sprenger and American Brendan Hansen.
“Once you have become an Olympic champion that can never be taken away from you.”
That’s an experience Kitajima is more than familiar with after completing the 100m-200m breaststroke doubles in both 2004 and 2008.
The Japanese veteran finished fifth, and said van der Burgh’s pace was just too fast for him.
“It was a really tough race and I needed the world record to win,” Kitajima said. “I didn’t have the ability to be honest.”
No man has won the same swimming event at three successive Games.
In the night’s other individual final, France’s Camille Muffat won the women’s 400m freestyle in an Olympic record of 4:01.45.
American Allison Schmitt was second in 4:01.77 and 2008 Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington stormed home for bronze in 4:03.01 to the deafening cheers of the home crowd