JOHANNESBURG -Â IT WAS Â a roller coaster year for South African sport, and while there were multiple breakthrough performances to celebrate on the field of play, 2014 will be remembered for the death of some of the country’s most revered athletes and the spectacular downfall of a Paralympic hero.
The nation mourned the passing of three sports stars in October, who died a few days apart.
Former world 800m champion Mbulaeni Mulaudzi died in a car accident in Mpumalanga, at the age of 34, and just two days later 27-year-old national football captain Senzo Meyiwa was shot and killed by intruders while visiting his girlfriend in Vosloorus.
Compounding the country’s sorrow, 31-year-old boxer Phindile Mwelase, who spent 10 days in a coma, died after being knocked out by Liz Butler in a women’s boxing fight in Pretoria.
Meanwhile, three days before Mulaudzi’s tragic death, double amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius was sentenced to five years in jail by the High Court in Pretoria, after being convicted of culpable homicide for shooting dead his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp last year.
While those tragic events left the nation in shock, however, there was plenty to shout about on the field of play.
At the major multi-sport showpiece of the season, the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the SA team bagged 40 medals to finish seventh in the final standings, spearheaded by swimmer Chad le Clos, who pocketed seven medals.
Le Clos was well backed by other athletes and codes, including the sevens rugby team who handed New Zealand their first defeat in a final at the quadrennial spectacle.
It was the nation’s lowest placing in the medals table at the Games since the SA team finished 12th at the 1994 event in Victoria, but the squad secured the most medals since bagging 46 at the Manchester Games in 2002.
The team’s 13 gold medals was the most since the Cardiff edition in 1958.
Elsewhere, while Meyiwa’s death overshadowed events on the field, Bafana Bafana finished on a high after starting the year at rock bottom.
While the national soccer team were eliminated in the group stages of the African Nations Championship, hosted by South Africa, they bounced back to qualify for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, to be held in Equatorial Guinea in January.
With the football squad thriving under the leadership of new coach Shakes Mashaba, the national rugby team experienced a shaky campaign in the build-up to next year’s World Cup in England.
Following two years of steady improvement, the Springboks came into the season on the back of their best year under the tutelage of coach Heyneke Meyer.
However, while Meyer managed to get the monkey off his back with a victory against the All Blacks — the squad’s first win against New Zealand in three years — the Boks lost four of their 13 games, including a shock 12-6 defeat to Wales in their final Test of the year.
In cricket, the Proteas relinquished the number one Test ranking but later regained the top spot.
Perhaps the most significant developments of the season, however, were the retirements of stalwarts Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith.
In March, the national squad endured yet another fruitless campaign in pursuit of an ICC trophy at the World T20 tournament in Bangladesh.
After winning three of their four group games against England, New Zealand and the Netherlands, they were outclassed by India in the semi-finals.
Making up for that disappointment, the SA Under-19 side outshone their senior compatriots by winning the Under-19 Cricket World Cup in Dubai.
The junior outfit beat Pakistan by six wickets, with 47 balls to spare, in the final to mark the first time a South African side had tasted victory in an ICC tournament since the 1998 Champions Trophy.
In smaller sport codes, Le Clos was the standout performer.
After equalling the record for the most medals at a Commonwealth Games, he went on to win the World Cup series for the third time, bagged four of the nation’s five medals at the World Short-Course Championships in Doha, and was named Fina Male Swimmer of the Year.
In track and field, 400m hurdler Cornel Fredericks was the only athlete to win gold medals at all three major international events of the season — the Commonwealth Games, African Championships and Continental Cup.
Khotso Mokoena again proved his versatility by grabbing triple jump medals at every major competition on offer and winning the Diamond League series in the long jump, while javelin thrower Sunette Viljoen, long jumper Zarck Visser and 400m sprinter Wayde van Niekerk also medalled at all three championship events.
Kevin Anderson and doubles specialist Raven Klaasen were the best performers on the international tennis circuit, both closing out the year ranked among the top 20 players in the world.
Anderson reached the fourth round of three Grand Slam tournaments, ending the season in 16th place in the ATP ratings, while Klaasen and American partner Eric Butorac reached the Australian Open final and went on to win the Memphis Open and the Stockholm Open.
The country’s elite rowers, under the guidance of national coach Roger Barrow, continued their steady improvement in the build-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
With few resources to draw upon, Barrow led his paddlers to a maiden world title which went to men’s lightweight sculls duo John Smith and James Thompson.
In canoeing, Bridgitte Hartley made history in August when she won South Africa’s first medal in an Olympic category at the global championships in Moscow, grabbing bronze in the women’s K1 500m final.
Furthermore, Hank McGregor cemented his status as a legend of South African canoeing, claiming his fourth K1 gold medal at the ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships.
The following day, the 36-year-old teamed up with Jasper Mocke to clinch the K2 gold medal and become the first South African to win double gold at a canoeing world championship.
Nuggety WBA and IBO champion Hekkie Budler emerged as a shining light in the morass that has seen South African boxing slip further into an administrative mire.
By the end of the season, Budler headed the list of six South Africans who appeared in Ring Magazine’s authoritative world rankings — generally considered the more reliable of boxing’s myriad of international ratings.
He cemented his status as the leading strawweight fighter in the world with a convincing points victory over China’s former WBC champion Xiong Zhao Zhong in Monte Carlo and was Ring’s No 1 contender for their vacant title in boxing’s lightest weight division.
Finally, in golf, Lee Anne Pace was the top-performing South African for the second year in a row, grabbing a win on the Ladies European Tour (LET), followed by her maiden victory on the LPGA Tour at the Blue Bay Championship in China.
On the men’s side, Tim Clark was the only winner from South Africa on the PGA Tour during 2014.
His victory at the Canadian Open in July was the second PGA Tour victory of his career. – Sapa