By Bardy the Action Scribe

International BMX racing star, Sifiso Nhlapo, continued to push South Africa up the world rankings and into a favourable position for Olympic Games qualification when he reached the finals of Rounds 7 and 8 of the European Championships in Douai, France at the weekend.

Currently ranked 19th in the world, Nhlapo has been cutting a lonely pioneering path for South Africa in Europe, where the sport, which is culturally ingrained in many countries, is flourishing following its inclusion in the Olympic Games. At the weekend, Nhlapo continued his remarkable run of consistency to take his finals appearances in the world’s most competitive continental series to seven in eight rounds, the highest of any rider in the series.

That’s like a South African tennis player making the quarterfinals in seven out of eight consecutive ATP Tour events, or a South African golfer finishing in the top eight at seven out of eight consecutive PGA Tour events. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a brilliant run of consistency at the highest level.

Europe’s top three BMX nations, Latvia, France and The Netherlands are now becoming accustomed to seeing the bright yellow, MTN-branded South African on the finals start gate among their riders at the popular continental championship events, most of which are held indoors due to the icy weather conditions.

South Africa was the 16th ranked country in the world at the end of November 2007, but Nhlapo’s run of success in Europe since December has helped push the country up to 12th, just one place away from virtual automatic Olympic Games selection and leapfrogging Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland and Canada in the process. Nhlapo’s compatriot, Gavin Lubbe, who is based in the USA, has also added to the country’s UCI points tally.

According to the UCI’s Olympic Games primary qualification criteria, countries ranked 1-5 as at 31 May 2008, will secure three places in Beijing, while countries ranked 6-8 will qualify two riders each and countries ranked 9-11 will secure one place each. This gives a total of 24 of the available 32 places on offer. The next six ranked countries will fall into the secondary qualification criteria and get one place each with the final two places being wild cards that the UCI/IOC will determine according to various criteria.

Once the nation places are secure, each country’s national cycling federation and Olympic Committee will determine which rider will best represent the country at the Games. At this stage, the 20-year-old Nhlapo is comfortably South Africa’s first choice representative for Beijing.

With just four rounds remaining, Nhlapo is lying third in the European Championship rankings. He returns home this week for a short break before returning to Europe to continue chasing his Olympic dream.

2008 European Championship rankings after 8 rounds (25 February 2008):
1 Maris Strombergs (LAT) 275 points
2 Ivo Lakucs (LAT) 236
3 Sifiso Nhlapo (RSA) 235
4 Arturs Matisons (LAT) 213
5 Thomas Hamon (FRA) 210
6 Pablo Gutierrez (FRA) 202
7 Thomas Allier (FRA) 190
8 Martijn Scherpen (NED) 185
9 Roy van den Berg (NED) 180
10 Jordy van der Heijden (NED) 152

UCI BMX country rankings as at 20 February 2008
1 United States of America 567 points
2 The Netherlands 402
3 Australia 377
4 Colombia 343
5 Latvia 336
6 New Zealand 313
7 Argentina 312
8 France 285
9 Ecuador 226
10 Czech Republic 225
11 Venezuela 191
12 South Africa 142
13 Switzerland 140
14 Canada 116
15 Belgium 111
16 Chile 91
16 Denmark 91
18 Brazil 83
19 China 73
20 Japan 71