Small, experienced squad | SASCOC - SASCOC

Small, experienced squad

By Mark Etheridge

They may be a tiny squad of just five but between them our badminton squad for the London Olympics boasts as many Olympic experiences as members.

One coach and two teams of two will be slamming the shuttlecock at the Games ÔÇô┬áa women’s doubles and a men’s doubles team.

And the experience is spread over both categories. Michelle Edwards, one half of the women’s doubles, goes to her third Olympics in a row, having competed in Athens 2004 and then Beijing four years ago while Dorian James played at the Athens Games.

Joining the “old-hands” in the doubles are the brother-sister combination of Willem and Annari Viljoen who are both making their Olympic debuts.

Of the four members, only Bloemfontein based Wiaan is from outside Cape Town.

On the road to London our men’s doubles were ranked 48th in the world at the qualification cut-off at the beginning of May. Currently ranked 51st, their highest ranking has been 46th. The women’s combination were ranked 44th at cut-off and now slot in at 49th after a high of 40th at the beginning of the year.

Edwards, a schoolteacher at Wynberg Girls High in Cape Town is the oldest member of the team at 38, James is 31 while of the Viljoens, Annari is 25 and Willem 27.

“We’ve just had a weeklong training camp down here in Cape Town with Stewart and Wiaan [Willem] joining us,” Edwards told Road to London 2012. “With both Annari and myself living here we train together everyday, both on court and then also do gym work. The focus is more on technique and fine-tuning of shots rather than just fitness. We’ve got good ‘sparring’ in Cape Town so we get nice strong opposition.

“After we leave SA we go directly to Ireland where the Irish Badminton Federation are hosting us for six days and giving us access to their training centre as well as the opportunity of sparring against different players. Then we’ll rejoin the SA team before the opening ceremony.”

Both teams won their African continental preliminaries at the Thomas Cup (men) and Uber Cup (women) and played in the finals in China last month.

Manager/coach for the team in London is Stewart Carson, who also filled that position at last year’s All Africa Games in Maputo, Mozambique. He’s also an Olympian, having partnered James in Athens eight years ago.

“It’s exciting although it’s been a long 12 months trying to qualify,” said Carson. “We got inside the world’s top 50 and both combinations are the highest ranked in Africa. Most of our games will be against combinations that are in the top 16 of the world.”

Speaking of the team’s Chinese experience he said: “We played against the best in the world ÔÇô China, Denmark, Malaysia and Indonesia. Sure, we got beaten but we held our own and progressed a lot. Now we can walk on court with these countries and keep our heads up.”

To have both combinations ranked inside the top 50 is an achievement in itself but they’re now looking at making the top 30.

Carson reckons that the new-look Olympic competition format is in the South African players’ favour. “Because its a round robin we have more games where as in the past it was knock-out ÔÇô obviously more games means a better chance.

“The round robin has four groups of four in each group with the top two in each group going through to the knock-out stage. In our group we will play a combination who will be ranked in the top four in the world, another team who is in the top eight and another in the top 20 so this will be really tough competition.

“Having said that our players have travelled a lot in the last year so they have lots of experience. We have to draw on all of that and give it our best shot. It’s very unlikely that we’ll be bringing back any medals but this is the Olympics so upsets can certainly happen.”

Edwards agrees with Carson on the new format. “At least all teams are guaranteed three matches where as before, if you drew the No1 seeds your tournament was almost over before it began.”

The draw will be made on 22 July. “So we don’t know who our opposition are yet, but whoever we play, we’ll be fighting just as hard to get through to the knockout rounds.”