Ten Years Ago Today: South Africa Stuns the World in Athens

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer based out of Victoria, BC. In feeding his passion for swimming, he has developed YourSwimBook, a powerful log book and goal setting guide made specifically for swimmers. Sign up for the YourSwimBook newsletter (free) and get weekly motivational tips by clicking here.

Ten years ago today, four men from South Africa banded together and defeated the world swimming superpowers to win male swimming gold for the first time in their country’s short Olympic history.

The team of Roland Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend, and Ryk Neethling unleashed a pounding on the rest of the world in the 4x100m freestyle relay in a way that isn’t seen very often in what has become a race decided by hundredths of a second. From the sound of the starter’s gun it was apparent that South African swimming had come of age, and was here to stay.

During that night in Athens it wasn’t hard to find a compelling storyline.

The defending champions in the event, the Australians – who’d upset Team USA on home turf four years earlier, had brought back three swimmers from that gold medal winning relay, most notably Michael Klim and Ian Thorpe.

The Americans, on the other hand, were desperate to regain their stranglehold on the event. After losing to the Australians in 2000 they had suffered subsquent defeats leading into Athens. DQ’d at Worlds in 2001. Silver at Pan Pacs in 2002. Silver again at Worlds in 2003 behind the Russians.

They had their prizefighter, Gary Hall Jr. sitting out after not swimming swiftly enough in the preliminaries, which meant for the final the US would be represented by Ian Crocker, better known for his butterfly prowess, Michael Phelps, Neil Walker, and reigning American record holder Jason Lezak.

The Russians were not to be discounted, as they had sprint legend Alexander Popov who would man the anchor leg. While for the Netherlands, who would be swimming a lane up from the Americans in lane 6, they had the world record holder in the event, Pieter van den Hoogenband anchoring.

For a lack of a better word, the field that night in Athens was stacked.

Among the men who got up to lead-off their respective countries were Crocker of the United States, Michael Klim (who’d broken the world record leading off the Aussies in Sydney four years earlier), and in lane 4, Roland Schoeman of the Republic of South Africa.

Schoeman would blast out to an early lead, turning well ahead of the field at the 50m mark in 22.63. The lead would extend itself to a full body-length – a lead in a race so full of talent and window-rattling speed that it is still now difficult to fathom – by the time Schoeman hit the wall.

His split of 48.17 was exactly a second faster than the second fastest lead-off, Lorenzo Vismara of Italy. And it was nearly two seconds quicker than the leg unceremoniously swam by Crocker, who would lay a bizarrely awful 50.05 to put the Americans in dead last. (Crocker’s best time in 100m butterfly at the time was a 50.76.)

South Africa’s Lyndon Ferns would extend the lead off on the take over, with Phelps and the Americans nearly two full body lengths behind by the 150m mark. Ferns would sail across clear water to touch at the 200m mark 0.36 under world record pace.

Neil Walker’s third leg of 47.97 would bring the Americans roaring back into contention for a medal of some sort, behind Darian Townsend’s 48.96, who maintained the body length lead into 300m, with the South Africans still holding at just under world record pace.

Into the water dove Popov, Van den Hoogenband, Thorpe, Bousquet of France, Ryk Neethling for South Africa, and relay superhero Jason Lezak for the United States, with everyone chasing the South Africans in lane 4.

Neethling, who placed 4th in the individual event, would not be caught. He would crash into the wall splitting a 47.91, while also rewriting the record book, swimming a world’s fastest 3:13.17.

In a mirror image of what would happen in four years in Beijing, Lezak would be reeled in by Van den Hoogenband and the Netherlands, who were nowhere near contention until the very last 30 metres.

The Netherlands would win silver, the Americans bronze. The Russians behind Popov’s strong 48-flat would close out fourth, while the Australians, never really in it, placed an underwhelming 6th place.

Understandably, there was some serious soul searching for the Americans following the race. Coach Eddie Reese, who also was Crocker’s coach at the University of Texas, defended his decision to place Crocker in the line up that night, even though the star swimmer had been fighting off a sore throat that week.

“Well, if somebody had told me Ian Crocker was going to go that slow, there’s no way I would have believed it,” said the long time American coach. “He just can’t go that slow. Not in my mind, not in his mind.”

But for the South Africans, who as a country were only participating in the Games for the 4th time, they finally had another set of sporting stars, who walloped and yelled and fell over the lane ropes in a celebration of pure, golden joy.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UwmL8tG2Z4?rel=0]

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bobo gigi
6 years ago

I remember the comments of Stéphan Caron on the French television. He couldn’t believe the results.
Stunning win for South Africa.
Crocker was awful in that race.
Great 46.79 relay split for VDH.

Reply to  bobo gigi
6 years ago

“Great” does not to the split justice. He outsplit everyone in the field by over a second.

In 2004 only four people total were under 48 in their splits. In 2012 12 were. In 2004 12 people were under 48.75. By the basest and more amateur calculations, I guestimate that the world is maybe 7 tenths faster than in 2004 between starts, blocks, pools, suits and training.

Compared to the field, that 46.79 would be the equivalent of a textile 46.05 or so.

Reply to  mcgillrocks
6 years ago

Great observations. Worth noting as well that on Lezak’s famous anchor at 2008 Olympics, he split a 46.06, which Rowdy said was the fastest 100 split of all time.

Reply to  bobo gigi
6 years ago

while its noted I am a big crocker fan, it does seem puzzling as to why he was put in the 4×100 free. while short course is awesome for him because of his underwaters, and he is actually has, I think still, a 200 free nag record, they nailed it on the head in the race, he is inexperienced in 100 free style let alone the free relay. also doesn’t help he was sick in 04 at Olympics.

tall n wet
6 years ago

Those bodysuits back then were textile, so there was virtually no buoyancy aid, only water repellance. Still a great race to watch after all these years

Reply to  tall n wet
6 years ago

while there may not have been tech suit flotation there was still buoyancy, and also the corset effect.

6 years ago

To put Ryan Lochte last year in the relay feels a way better decision than Crocker on that night to start the Us relay . What a stupid decision that was for a Great Coach . It happens sometimes , yes it happens . Still Usa got 3d ! imagine if they had a 48.5 lead off ………. Worse was the Aussies result finishing 6th after having smashed Us guitars 4 years earlier ….Ouch , that was way more painfull somehow . Still i love watching that relay . I got now one clear question : Which team will one day beat that Bejing relay WR ? No team has come closer than 1.5 seconds from that record . .… Read more »

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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