SIFISO PRIMED FOR BEIJING BMX BLITZ
By Bardy the Action Scribe
With BMX racing making its much-anticipated Olympic debut on Wednesday and still little for Team South Africa to celebrate, pressure is mounting on Sifiso Nhlapo to achieve that medal he’s been tipped as a contender for. But that’s okay because the 21-year-old from Alberton thrives on pressure.
In May, Nhlapo needed to at least advance as far as the quarterfinals at the World Championships to qualify for Beijing. But he went better than that, reaching the eight-man final and claiming the bronze medal behind Latvia’s Maris Strombergs and the USA’s Steven Cesar.
“Yes there is a lot of focus on me after I won that medal at World’s. I’ve shown in the past that I respond well to pressure and whether Team SA gets a medal or not before my event makes no difference to me because I still want to be on the top of the podium,” smiled Nhlapo on Monday after a successful practice session.
And that World Champs podium really is representative as to where Nhlapo’s biggest opposition is expected to come from this week. The United States and Latvia are the two strongest nations in BMX racing. Such is the depth of BMX talent in the United States, the country that created the sport, that Cesar, the world champs silver medallist, is not even in the US team for Beijing!
A total of 32 men from 17 countries will take their Olympic hopes to the top of the three-storey high start ramp at the Laoshan Track in Beijing on Wednesday, but only half of them will return there on Thursday.
Each rider will do two seeding runs (individual time trials) on Wednesday to determine which quarterfinal group they will be placed in. Four groups of eight riders each will then contest the quarterfinals over three motos (races). Points are awarded for each moto with the top four points scorers from each quarterfinal group qualifying for the semi-finals on Thursday.
Nhlapo is currently ranked ninth in the world and has, at some point, beaten all 31 of his Beijing rivals. But in a sport where there is a miniscule margin for error, that means little. What Nhlapo does have in his favour are his ability to be consistent, a fast start and full-face helmet-load of confidence.
“This is BMX racing anything can happen. Look at Kyle Bennet, the 2007 World Champion, he didn’t even make it past the quarterfinals at this year’s World Champs,” explained Nhlapo, who confirmed that he is free of illness and injury.
“I’ve done no racing since the World Champs at the end of May, but not many of us have. I have, however, done lot of training on a replica of the Olympic Games track in Switzerland. Physically, I’m feeling even better than I did before the World Champs.”
The MTN-sponsored rider’s consistency will be an important factor in advancing through the quarterfinals to Thursday’s action when the semi-finals and final will be contested. The United States, Latvia, Australia, The Netherlands and Columbia each qualified the maximum of three riders and are all expected to get at least one rider to the semi-finals.
“With Sifiso being in the best shape of his life, we are confident about a good showing from him in the event. He is a tough competitor and is well-prepared for the Olympics,” says Anthony Garstang, senior manager for sponsorship and events at MTN SA.
World champion, Strombergs, World No.1 Donny Robinson (USA) and World No. 2 Jarred Graves (AUS) are among the favourites and, at around 3-1, are the bookies’ favourites too. Nhlapo is being given a 12-1 chance of claiming gold by bookies, but their judgment is based on previous results and doesn’t include emotional factors like personal desire, national pride and of course, pressure.
Beijing BMX Schedule
Wednesday 20 August
Seeding runs from 03h00
Quarterfinals from 05h40
TV: Live on SuperSport 5 (Channel 205)
Thursday 21 August
Semifinals from 03h00
Final from 04h30
TV: Live on SuperSport Xtra 2 (Channel 199). Repeat: 08h30 SuperSport 6 (Channel 206)