South Africa claim first rowing gold

South Africa stunned favourites Great Britain and Denmark to claim their first ever Olympic rowing gold medal in the lightweight men's four on Thursday in front of a 25,000 crowd.

All eyes were on the host nation to follow up Wednesday's gold in the women's pairs, and Denmark, champions at the Beijing Games four years ago.

But the South Africa four -- James Thompson, Matthew Brittain, John Smith and Sizwe Ndlovu -- gate-crashed their party in gripping fashion.

The 29-year-old Ndlovu, who took up the sport at school in 1997, told AFP of the enormity of winning South Africa's first Olympic rowing title.

"Rowing is big in schools but otherwise financially it's an expensive sport," he said.

"So this gold will be good for South Africa's rowing community and help give it a better image."

The only black member of the triumphant crew, whose parents have both passed away, added: "This is so exciting, amazing...I took rowing up at school in 1997, and now I'm standing here. My brothers and sisters are supporting me back home."

Seemingly out of contention in the first 1500m, South Africa exploded in the closing quarter to overhaul the Danes and then Britain to rewrite their country's and the Games' rowing history.

Denmark took control from the start, with Britain, featuring Northern Ireland brothers Richard and Peter Chambers, looking dangerous in lane three.

The British four started to press Denmark, for whom Eskildi Ebbesen was seeking a fourth Olympic title.

But the big guns had no answer to South African's finishing surge, the winning crew falling over themselves in jubilation after crossing the line in front of a capacity crowd at Eton Dorney.

"We stuck to our game plan," reflected Ndlovu. "We knew Denmark would start strongly, and we had one call - to go for it in the last 500 metres. It worked."

World champions Australia came in fourth.

"That was brutal, we were fighting, fighting, fighting," said Richard Chambers.

His teammate, Chris Bartley, provided a graphic description of the agony of rowing at this exalted level when the body has cried enough.

"I don't remember much about the last 250m, you literally do anything to get gold.

"The pain is extreme, I was sick quite a few times after the line, I'm still not feeling tip top."

Teammate Rob Williams added: "It's a tough event, we wanted to win gold, so silver's not fantastic, but it is a medal at our home Olympics..."

On the home crowd's support Richard Chambers added: "It's amazing, they were cheering on four midgets in a boat, what have we done to deserve that?

"But we've shown here it's not only 6ft 6in guys who can win Olympic medals."

In other finals action, the all-conquering United States team, unbeaten in the past four years, added women's eight gold to their Beijing and world championship titles.

The USA comfortably held off Canada in silver with the Netherlands filling the bronze position.

Winning cox Mary Whipple beamed: "There's no place I would rather be, I'm so proud, I'm satisfied.

"I'm nothing without my teammates, they're my heroes, I love them so much."

She added: When we crossed, it was game over. I felt so much power. And when we took our stride, we were a little high, but it was beautiful.

"I just told them to breathe, to enjoy the moment, to feel each stroke. We got into our rhythm, and it was just a crushing rhythm, it was relentless.

"It was exactly what we planned to do, what we had practised, what we have visualised.

"An Olympic gold medal, it never gets old."

New Zealand world champions Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan won gold in the men's double sculls.

The Kiwi pair overhauled Italy's Alessio Sartori and Romano Battisti late on, with long time leaders Luka Spik and Iztok Cop of Slovenia taking bronze.