KENYA and Ethiopia are set to continue their traditional roles as the strongest African medal contenders at the Olympics.

While SA may be unable to match the men and women from East Africa in podium appearances, they are desperate to better a dismal showing in Beijing four years ago when 253 athletes got just one medal among them.

Nigeria probably also believes the only way is up after one silver and three bronze medals from the 2008 Games. And there are bound to be surprises from unknown African athletes preparing under the radar.

Some Africans have gone to the ends of the earth to try and secure places at the July 27 to August 12 London Games, with the South African men's and women's hockey teams and the Angolan basketball side displaying indomitable spirit.

The South African men's hockey team qualified by winning a tournament in Japan and the women did likewise in India after domestic Olympic bosses ruled that being the best in Africa was not good enough.

Angola came second behind Tunisia in the African basketball championships to miss automatic qualification, so they flew to Venezuela this week and are competing with 11 other countries for three "wildcard" places.

Kenya fared best among the African countries in Beijing with six gold, four silver and four bronze - a 14-medal haul that doubled the number they brought back from the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

A third-place finish on the 2011 world athletics championships medals table in South Korea confirmed the Kenyans as major international players, but also brought a warning from coach Colm O'Connell.

"Kenyans will not be satisfied unless the athletes bring back gold and the pressure on them in London is going to be tremendous," said the Ireland-born trainer of 20 Olympic and world champions.

While the unexplained death of Beijing marathon champion Samuel Wanjiru still casts shadows, Wilson Kipsang, Abel Kirui and Emmanuel Mutai were chosen from 278 hopefuls and are considered worthy successors.

The women's marathon team of Mary Keitany, Edna Kiplagat and Priscah Jeptoo has its sights on gold after the 2004 and 2008 silvers of Catherine Ndereba. There are also high hopes for Vivian Cheruiyot in the 5000m and 10000m races.

David Rudisha is among the 800m favourites but could face strong competition from rapidly improving 18-year-old Mohamed Aman of Ethiopia, a country more renowned for brilliant long distance runners.

Among the greatest was veteran Haile Gebrselassie, who failed at 39 to qualify for London but believes he is handing the baton to a new, even more exciting generation of athletes with Kenenisa Bekele at the forefront.

Reigning Olympic 5000m and 10000m champion Bekele overcame calf and knee injuries - and a ban for not attending a mandatory national training camp - to record the third fastest time in the world this year over the 10000m run.

"I hope to show the world great things," was his ominous message after the race in Birmingham, England. "I still have time to prepare for the Olympics and need to work on my endurance."

LJ van Zyl in the 400m hurdles, Caster Semenya in the 800m, where her rivals include defending champion Pamela Jelimo of Kenya, and javelin thrower Sunette Viljoen are considered the best South African hopes for athletics medals.

Cameroon van der Burgh (100m breaststroke) and Chad le Clos (200m butterfly) are set to pose the strongest challenges in the swimming pool. Both are ranked within the top three this year in their disciplines.

In football, Egypt, Morocco, Gabon and Senegal qualified for the 16-team men's tournament while SA and Cameroon face powerful competition in the 12-nation women's event.

Sapa-AFP