_: Johannesburg – It was a hive of activity and great display of South African national pride at OR Tambo International on Tuesday morning, as crowds waving flags and blowing vuvuzelas welcomed home their Olympic heroes from the London Games.
In true SA style, the supporters broke out in song, singing the national anthem as they met the athletes, who stood in a line with their hands over their chests. Placards displaying messages such as “Welcome back home Team SA”, “Well done incredible rowers” and “Welcome back heroes” could be seen among the hundreds gathered at the airport.
Sport Minister Fikile Mbalula said there were no words to describe the joy that swept over the nation when Team SA members won medals at the highly contested Games.
“Today, we are united … because of your deeds; you’ve inspired a nation and for what you’ve done, you will remain in the archives of history.”
He said middle-distance runner and Olympic silver medallist, Caster Semenya, represented what a young African woman could achieve with determination and support.
“… [Semenya] represents a symbol of a courageous young woman … who toils out of difficulties to become a symbol of success and greatness.”
The Limpopo-born runner said although she was somewhat disappointed with her achievement, she tried her best.
“I am a little disappointed. At least we’ve won silver and I am now focusing on 2013’s world championship in Moscow,” said Semenya, who also promised South Africans that she would continue to make them proud.
South Africa’s two silver medals came from flag bearer Semenya and swimmer Chad Le Clos (who also won gold), while canoeist Bridgitte Hartley won bronze.
The three gold medals came from swimming sensations Cameron van der Burgh and Le Clos, and the rowing team comprising Sizwe Ndlovu, Matthew Brittain, James Thompson and John Smith.
“When Cameron van der Burgh won the gold medal … South Africans reverberated with joy and blew their vuvuzela … Even those who were far away could hear that South Africa had arrived,” said an elated Mbalula.
Mbalula said double medallist Le Clos was a shining beacon in South Africa’s future in swimming, who could hold his own against any competition produced from the best countries in the world.
Le Clos snatched the gold medal from United States swimmer Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly final on July 31 and after three days, he won a silver medal, tying for second position in the men’s 100m butterfly in 51.44 seconds.
Mbalula also thanked SASCOC President Gideon Sam for a job well done.
“Even in your modesty, you recognised that we could have even done much better. That’s how a leader leads…”
South African stalwart Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was also amongst the South Africans who came to the airport to give the Olympic team a warm welcome.
Popular Kaizer Chiefs and Bafana Bafana supporter Mukwevho said: “I am here to give our heroes a warm welcome because I’m satisfied with their performance… I am quite certain that we will do better in the upcoming Olympic Games.”
His views were echoed by another well-known football supporter, Sadam Maake. “These athletes made us proud and as a result of their performance, we are well-known the world over, so they deserve a heroes’ welcome.”
SASCOC chef de Mission, Patience Shikwambane, said: “We’ve done very well as Team SA at the London Olympics compared to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where we were ranked 71 and now we are leaders in Africa.
“To the athletes, you are world champions … You need to stay humble … You are what you are because of the support you received from the nation, family and friends. To the medallists, we salute you. You’ve made us proud.”
SASCOC CEO Tubby Reddy said Team SA’s performance at the London Olympics was the most successful ever since the country was readmitted to international competition.
“These athletes really made us proud with their performance and achievements.”
Sam, who had set a target of 12 medals for Team SA, gave the Olympians hearty congratulations.
“I am 100 percent satisfied with the performance and what we’ve achieved. We set the target precisely because we wanted to work towards something.
“We tried our best and in the coming weeks, I will give the medallists a programme in preparation of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016,” he said.
Government also joined the millions of South Africans in congratulating Team SA.
“We join the multitudes of sport enthusiasts in congratulating our athletes for their best performance and grit at the games. Team SA has emerged as shining stars and are now exemplary to those who want to achieve greatness.
“Government hopes that these achievements will inspire our local youth to follow in their steps and realise South Africa’s dream,” government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi said.
The medallists were also thanked with monetary rewards. Le Clos received R600 000 for winning gold and silver, while his coach Graham Hill, who was not present to receive the dummy cheque, got R150 000.
Van der Burgh got R400 000 and his coach received R100 000.
The four members of the rowing team each received R100 000 and Semenya pocketed R200 000 and her coach Maria Mutola got R50 000.