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Culture

Africa Enters Olympic Spotlight

A broadcaster called the South African swim team and asked how to pronounce their names. The media's unfamiliarity with the team shows how little attention the West pays to athletes from the African continent.

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After gold medal in the 4X100m relay the world noticed South Africa

When the South African 4x100 meter freestyle relay team pulled off one of the most shocking results of the Games by beating the medal favorites from the US and Australia, the world sat up and took notice.

"It's very exhilarating," said Kajee Hajeera, spokeswoman for the South African Olympic team in Athens. "Not only did we win the gold, but we also broke a world record," she said of the surprise outcome last Sunday. It's not every day that an African team beats the traditional swimming powerhouses in one of the Games' premier events and sets a world record in the process.

But from start to finish the South African team clearly dominated the relay, finishing at 3 minutes 13.17 seconds, just ahead of the Netherlands at 3 min. 14.36 sec. and the Americans at 3 min. 14.62 sec. In winning gold, the team of Roland Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend and Ryk Neethling also broke Australia's world record from Sydney.

"For them it was really great beating the Australian's record," Hajeera said.

A rare moment

South African Sports Minister Makekesi Stofile expressed the same combination of surprise and pride in his countrymen. After he heard the news, he said he would be lying if he ever said they would be expecting a gold medal in swimming. Nevertheless, Hajeera expects the swim team to come home with more laurels.

Südafrikanische Männer gewinnen 4x100m Schwimmen

The celebrations continued long into the night

"The swimmers have got until Saturday, and we're hoping to do well in the individual races," which start up on Tuesday. "We are hoping to do better than in Sydney."

The success of the South African swim team is a rare moment in the international sports spotlight. African athletes don't usually enjoy such attention, and when they do it's usually for track and field events. But Africans are also proving they can dominate on the soccer pitch.

Dominating the pitch

Kenianische Läufer

Many excellent distance runners come from the African continent.

Throughout the Olympic elimination rounds, two African champions have come out especially strong: Ghana and Mali have both made it to the quarter-finals. Mali made the news and drew the wrath of many a fan in the stadium when it beat host nation and reigning European Champion Greece 2:0, while Ghana sent Paraguay to the bench with 2:1. There is also a possibility of a third team from the continent making it to the finals -- Morocco and Tunisia are currently third in groups C and D and although they face an uphill battle, there is a chance they could pull off a hat-trick.

Coach Ralf Zumdick of the German Bundesliga club in Hamburg said it is very likely an African soccer team could pick up a medal. Zumdick used to help manage the Ghana team and is optimistic about the country's Olympic chances.

"The African teams have a chance to come into the final and even take the gold medal," he said. "They are playing very professionally."

Ghana took home a bronze medal in soccer in Barcelona in 1992, a win that marked the beginning of Africa's soccer ascendancy at the Olympics. On Wednesday Ghana will face off against Japan while Mali takes on South Korea. Zumdick said the world should not be surprised if either one or even both the teams make it into the final round.

"I was not surprised they got this far, because I know how they play football. I think the world must not be surprised," he said. For many African sports fans, the best is yet to come when the track and field events commence. The Ethiopians and Kenyans have their eyes firmly fixed on the gold medals after South Africa paved the way by becoming the first African country to pick a medal at the Athens Olympics.