SouthAfrica.info (Johannesburg)

21 December 2012

South Africa's 2012 Sporting Highlights

South African Olympians, Paralympians, cricketers and golfers were among the leading lights in the country's sporting year in 2012. The country produced three Olympic champions, eight Paralympic golds, ascended to number one in the test cricket rankings, and once again saw its golfers shine throughout the world.

However, it was not that difficult to decide upon the number one highlight.

When you beat the winner of the most Olympic gold medals in history in his signature event - and in which he has been unbeaten for a decade - by closing him down from behind, you deserve first place in the list of South Africa's 2012 sporting highlights.

Chad le Clos did all those things in the 200 metres butterfly in London and then, together with his family, delivered an unforgettable, emotional celebration of his upset win over Michael Phelps.

It wasn't a case of Phelps having to lose some time. He was expected to retire with his decade-long record intact, but the 20-year-old rising South African star delivered one of the biggest upsets of the Olympic Games to end that astonishing run of success.

Le Clos later added a silver medal in the 100 metres butterfly and went on to be named the South African Sports Star of the Year in November.

Breaststroke star

South Africa had managed just a single silver medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but 2012 was a far better year for the country. It was Cameron van der Burgh who set the ball rolling with some wonderful performances in the 100 metres breaststroke.

He was the only swimmer to go under 59 seconds in the semi-finals, setting an Olympic record of 58.83 seconds in doing so. In the final, Van der Burgh raised the bar even higher, winning convincingly in a world record time of 58.46 seconds.

South Africa's third gold medal was every bit as unexpected as the one won by Le Clos, but it was also every bit as thrilling.

Rowing shock

South Africa's men's lightweight fours rowing team of Matthew Brittain, Lawrence Ndlovu, John Smith and James Thompson raced to a stunning victory at Eton Dornay after being in fourth place at the three-quarter mark, with 500 metres to go.

Showing incredible finishing speed, the quartet from Pretoria dug deep as the finishing line neared.

World champions Australia were the first to be hauled in, then Great Britain was passed. The noses of Denmark and South Africa's boats then popped ahead of each other as they changed lead with each pull. But then South Africa edged in front and went on to a narrow victory - something they knew only when the results went up - just ahead of the British and the Danes. It was a first ever rowing gold for Africa at the Olympics.

That performance later earned them the World Rowing Male Crew of the Year Award at the World Rowing Awards. They were also named Team of the Year at the South African Sports Awards.

Return to form

Caster Semenya rediscovered her form in time to make an assault on the Olympic 800 metres title. She finished in the silver medal position, but admitted later that her tactics had been wrong and she had allowed gold medallist Maria Savinova to get too far ahead on the first lap of the final.

Nonetheless, a fast finish took the South African star to a time of 1:57.23, which was her fastest of the season.

Bridgitte Hartley won South Africa's only bronze medal in the women's K1 500 metres canoe sprint. She came from fifth at the halfway mark - almost one-and-a- half seconds behind the leader - to claim a podium place.

It was the first sprint canoe medal for the country in 18 Olympic Games.

Paralympics excellence

South Africa's Paralympians picked up 29 medals - made up of eight gold, 12 silver and nine bronze medals. The standards in London were hugely improved over Beijing in 2008, with 251 world records being broken in only 11 days.

Natalie du Toit brought the curtain down on her career by winning three gold and one silver medal to take her career total for the Paralympics to 13 gold and two silver medals.

Charl Bouwer also showed his speed in the pool, winning the menÂ’s T13 50 metres freestyle gold.

In athletics, Oscar Pistorious stormed to victory in the men's T43/44 400 metres, Fanie van der Merwe won the T37 100 metres gold, South Africa's T42/46 relay team set a world record in capturing gold, and Ilse Hayes won the women's T13 long jump.

More than the Paralympians' achievements, it was the manner in which they achieved that inspired. They represented the country with pride and were recognised by the Games' volunteers as the best team assignment.

Cricket kings

The Proteas became world leaders in the test arena after series victories over Sri Lanka, New Zealand, England and Australia. Five players were selected for the World Test Team of the Year at the ICC Awards, underlining just how good the year under coach Gary Kirsten had been.

The series victory over England in England to claim the ICC Mace as the number one team in the world was particularly special, as was the win over Australia in Australia to retain it. Along the way there were some special performances from individuals.

Leading the way was Hashim Amla with 311 not out against England at The Oval, the first ever triple test century by a South African. Usually it is the case that very successful players attract a certain amount of hate, but in the humble Amla's case this isn't so. He has become one of the biggest stars of the game.

Deserving recognition

In the same match, Graeme Smith scored a century in his 100th test, making him only the seventh man to achieve the feat, while Jacques Kallis, who tallied 182 not out in an unbroken partnership of 377 with Amla, finally began to get the credit he deserves as he continued rolling along while Australia's Ricky Ponting and India's Sachin Tendulkar saw their form slip.

Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander came to be universally recognised as the best pace bowling attack in the game, with each man bringing a different challenge to opposing batsmen, and complimenting one another well.

In an extraordinary first season with the national team, Philander captured 50 wickets in only seven tests and was named the SA Cricketer of the Year.

South Africa also lifted the Hong Kong Sixes title, thumping defending champions Pakistan by 37 runs in the final.

Great golf results

It was not a surprise that South Africa's golfers shone again in 2012 as they produce fantastic results year after year. But there was certainly some surprise in who produced those results.

Ernie Els tops the list with his victory in The Open Championship at Royal Lytham and Saint Annes. His last win had been in December 2010 in the South African Open and many people thought his best days were behind him. Major number four confirmed that the Big Easy still has it in him to beat the best in any given tournament.

As a result of his win, Els was nominated for the 2013 Laureus World Comeback of the Year Award.

Branden Grace had a year for the ages. He began it ranked 265th in the Official World Golf Ranking and rose as high as 34th place after winning four titles on the European Tour.

That puts him in the company of Seve Ballesteros, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, Miguel Angel Jiminez, Martin Kaymer, Bernhard Langer, Lee Westwood, Tiger Woods and Ian Woosnam as golfers to have achieved that feat.

Titles

Grace is the only man to achieve it the year after he qualified for the Tour, though. His victories came in the Joburg Open and Volvo Golf Champions in South Africa, the Volvo China Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the UK.

Louis Oosthuizen enjoyed a strong year, playing consistently well. He finished it ranked fifth in the world. His results included victories in the Africa and Malaysian Opens and a runner-up finish in the US Masters after a playoff.

Charl Schwartzel, the winner of the Masters last year, struggled with an injury and his form, but when he found it late in the year he was brilliant in lifting the Thailand Golf Championship.

He set a tournament record score of 25-under-par 263 and won by a massive 11 shots over 2012 Masters' winner Bubba Watson and Thailand's Thitiphun Chuayprakong.

Jbe Kruger lifted his maiden European Tour title in February in the Avantha Masters in New Delhi.

Lifetime achievement

In May, Gary Player became the tenth recipient of the PGA Tour's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Created in 1996, it honours individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the Tour over an extended period of time through their actions on and off the course.

South Africa's prominence in the golf world and the success of the country's players was underlined in November when it was awarded six events on the 2012/13 European Tour, more than any other country.

Junior world champions

In rugby, the biggest highlight came from the junior ranks as South Africa scored a stirring victory over four-time defending champion New Zealand in the final to lift the IRB Junior World Championships in Cape Town.

If the performance of the Baby Boks is any indication of what the future holds, South African rugby is in good health.

The highlight of the Springboks' season was an unbeaten tour of the northern hemisphere. The three matches were all tight contests, but Heyneke Meyer's charges ended up on the right side of the result in each instance. The Boks beat Ireland 16-12, Scotland 21-10 and England 16-15.

South African Rugby Player of the Year Bryan Habana, the leading test try scorer in Springbok history, received the International Rugby Players Association award for Try of the Year for a five-pointer he scored against New Zealand in Dunedin.

Drought over

Locally, Western Province ended an 11-year drought when a young team overcame the odds and defeated a more experienced, Springbok-laden Natal Sharks team in Durban to claim South Africa's most important domestic rugby title, the Currie Cup.

In Super Rugby, South Africa provided three of the six playoff teams. The Stormers topped the log and were joined by the Sharks and Bulls in the playoffs. The Sharks, though, went on to make the final where they were beaten by the Chiefs.

On the football front, there was little to be excited about in the performances of Bafana Bafana, but the national women's team, Banyana Banyana, and the national under-20 men's team, Amajita, provided some highlights.

Banyana at the Olympics

Banyana made a first ever appearance at the Olympics where Portia Modise scored a stunning goal from 45 metres against Sweden, and the team held World Cup holders Japan to a draw. They also finished runners-up in the African Women's Championhip.

Amajita, meanwhile, excelled in an eight-nation tournament in Cape Town, finishing third after losing to eventual champions Brazil on a penalty shootout in the semi-finals. Their results included wins over African powerhouses Ghana and Nigeria and a defeat of Japan.

All-time great

Greg Minnaar cemented his status as one of the all-time greats of downhill mountain biking during the course of 2012.

He delighted his fans by winning the UCI World Cup in Pietermaritzburg and then went even better in Leogang, Austria, when he raced to victory in the World Championships.

No mountain biker in history has more World Cup podium finishes than Minnaar, whose record now includes three overall World Cup titles and two World Championship gold medals.

Burry Stander continued to excel in cross-country mountain biking, winning the UCI World Cup in Windham, New York, USA. He was second in the World Cup in Pietermaritzburg and narrowly missed out an Olympic medal when he finished in fifth place.

Stander and Switzerland's Christoph Sauser were also successful in their defence of the Absa Cape Epic title.

History made

Stander's wife, Cherise, made history by winning a stage of the Route de France, the women's version of the Tour de France. Stander was a controversial omission from South Africa's Olympic cycling team. Some strange decisions from the sport's administrators have led her to decide to focus more on mountain biking in 2013.

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio shone in the Giro d'Italia Internazionale Femminile, the toughest stage race in women's road cycling, by finishing in tenth place, becoming the first South African woman to make it into the top 10.

Pietermaritzburg hosted the 2012 UCI World Cycling Tour Final and local cyclists produced some superb results, winning four world titles.

On the track, Nolan Hoffman flew the South African flag high at the 2012 UCI Track World Champs in Melbourne, Australia, winning silver in the 15km scratch race.

Comrades honoured

The Comrades Marathon's status as one of the world's greatest ultra-marathons was confirmed when it was honoured for being the oldest marathon and ultra- marathon on the African continent at the 30th anniversary gala of the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS) in Athens, Greece, in November.

Oscar Chalupsky's greatness was also confirmed when at the age of 49, he claimed a record 12th victory in the Molokai World Championships surfski race in Hawaii.

Also on the water, Grant van der Walt picked up his third world title in six years by clinching the men's under-23 title at the World Canoe Marathon Championships, which were held on the Tiber River in Rome.

Surfing star

Rising surfing star Bianca Buitendag enjoyed a superb year. The winner of the Billabong ASP Women's World Junior Championships in 2011, Buitendag won the CHIKO Pro Junior in Australia in March, lifted the six-star rated Movistar Women's Pro in Piura, Peru, in July, and won the ASP six-star Sata Airlines Azores Pro in October.

She also finished runner-up at the Oakley World Junior Championship in Bali that month.

In the world's largest open water swimming event, the Midmar Mile, Chad Ho became the first man to win the menÂ’s title three times in succession in its 39-year history.

Johannesburg-born British star Keri-Anne Payne, won the womenÂ’s title for a record-setting seventh time.

On the tennis front, South African number one Kevin Anderson won his second ATP World Tour title at the Delray Beach International in Florida, USA.

Quads player Lucas Sithole shone in wheelchair tennis. In international competition, he captured the Acsa Gauteng Open and the Korean Open, and was runner-up in Daegu Open. KG Montjane picked up the Gauteng Open title.

Young motorbike maestro

Teenager Wade Young delivered an amazing performance to win the Roof of Africa, one of the worldÂ’s foremost extreme enduros, defeating the world's number one rider in the format, Graham Jarvis, to take the title.

At 16 years of age, he was the youngest ever winner of the event in its 45-year history.

Finally, in December, the country showed its style when it finished as the top nation at the 2012 International Dance Organisation (IDO) Show Dance World Championships in Riesa, Germany.

South African dancers won five gold, four silver and three bronze medals for a total of 12 in all.

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