When South African swimming star Cameron van der Burgh won gold at the London Olympics, even he could not have anticipated the response back home.
His name was splashed across the country’s newspapers and websites as South Africa celebrated their new "golden boy", while the reception that awaited his and fellow gold medallist Chad le Clos’ arrival last week, was the kind usually reserved for movie stars and World Cup-winning rugby players.
Van der Burgh though is not looking to simply cash in on his success, but rather use it to help turn South Africa into a superpower of the sport.
“It’s been quite a rollercoaster since then [winning the gold medal]... I’m pretty stoked. To arrive at the airport and see the reception and how many thousands of people came out – and on a public holiday when people usually want to sleep in – it was the first time we realised that ‘geez, we have really done something major here’,” he told iafrica.com of the days following his victory in London.
“We realised when we won the medals how it united the team and how proud we were of each other and when we got back home I think we realised how much it meant to the nation, how it united them in the same way it did the team.”
Success will always lead to a groundswell of support, but what happens when the euphoria of London fades away? Outside of the Olympics and World Championships, disciplines such as swimming and athletics battle to get coverage in South Africa, while the “smaller” sports like rowing and hockey enjoy even less.
Van der Burgh is well aware of the challenge to keep the momentum going, but he believes that he and the other medallists from London need to work together to continue building on what they have already done.
“We have never really had an Olympic culture in South Africa and I think people weren’t really excited by it,” he admits.
“People have said to me that it would have been better for me personally if only I had won and not Chad as well. But I don’t see it that way at all. One guy wins a gold medal and it’s ‘oh, one guy has a gold medal and it’s lucky'. But when two or three win, people sit up and take notice.
“I was front page news two days in a row, then Chad came along and he was front page news two days in a row, the rowers were front page news, Bridgitte [Hartley], Caster [Semenya] – all these guys! It made people excited about the Olympics when they didn’t care about it before. I think that is going to get corporate South Africa involved as they realise it is quite powerful and it’s not just about rugby, cricket and team sports anymore.
“We make the pie bigger and everybody gets a piece. There are more than enough sponsors out there. If it was just me, people would get sick of me! It’s nice that we can share in the glory. It’s been so overwhelming since we got back so I can only imagine what it’s been like for the other guys. Because it’s all shared between us, I think that makes it a bit easier to handle.”
And while swimming may be considered an individual sport, Van der Burgh is convinced that the only hope South African swimmers have of generating more exposure for themselves and of nurturing future talent, is to put the many before the few.
“I can’t get in the water with every kid, but if I can at least inspire them to get in the pool and get motivated, then that’s half the job done,” he says.
“We have this opportunity to make a difference, but we need to stick together. Sometimes guys want to fight against each other because they believe that there is only a small piece of the pie and they want the biggest part… if we support each other and swimming as a whole we all win at the end of the day. One person can’t do it all alone."
The performance in London was South Africa’s best since re-admission and went a long way to banishing the ghosts of Beijing – where Khotso Mokoena’s silver was all Team SA had to show for their efforts – and Van der Burgh believes Sascoc deserves credit for their part in the success.
"The support we got from Sascoc was amazing," he tells us.
"I would come along and say: ‘I need to do this for my preparation. I need to go here, race here’ and they would say, ‘you know what? You’re bringing the medals home, you can do what you want’.
“That has made the biggest difference. We’re not a team sport, we are individuals, and as individuals we have certain things that we need to do that cater for our individual skills. Maybe I need more racing and Chad needs more training – what is good for one is not necessarily good for the other. I think that this time around being able to do what we needed to do as individuals has helped us perform as individuals.
“We have the resources to do what is needed now.”
The success in London is fantastic, of course, but where to now for Team SA? People will be expecting more at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and perhaps the first step is generating more interest in the events that lead up to it, rather than simply forgetting about the Olympic athletes until the torch is lit in Rio.
Van der Burgh is confident people will not forget the heroics in London and believes as long as South Africans continue to succeed, the support will be there.
“You don’t want to watch a sport when there is nobody you know competing; it can be a bit boring, but I think because there is an interest in swimming, and we are doing well, people are aware that our swimmers in SA are really good, they will start watching. Obviously, the Olympics is the big one every four years, but I’m pretty sure people will get just as excited to watch swimming and athletics going on in the coming years.
“When I retire, I want to leave a legacy. When we retire, there need to four of five Chad le Clos, four or five Cameron van der Burghs taking part… then it will be up to them to build on what we have started.”