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South Africa’s bittersweet Olympics


Styli Charalambous is the CEO and co-founder of Daily Maverick, having joined the effort a few months before launch in 2009. Over the years, he has studied media models and news innovation efforts. He has also helped launch various projects and products within the Daily Maverick orbit.

Since the start of the Olympic Games more than two weeks ago, Team SA have been responsible for moments in sporting history that had even most hardened fans reaching for a Kleenex. We should all be revelling in the aftermath of our most successful post-isolation Olympics but instead I have this overwhelming sense of “just not good enough”.

South Africa has nine new sporting heroes from our haul of six Olympic medals at London 2012. Each receiving a hero’s welcome at OR Tambo and rightly so, for their efforts and sacrifices were greater than almost every person on this planet for them to etch their names into Wikipedia pages. But in celebrating these individuals we should not be fooled into accepting the mediocrity of Team SA’s performance, which left me wondering who should be blamed for the underwhelming show.

Listening to the Sascoc hype machine, you could be forgiven thinking we’d bagged a truckful of medals, trying to dazzle us with statements like “vast improvement on Beijing”, “best Olympics since the end of Apartheid” or “best placed African team”. Back on planet Earth, a grand total of six medals are just not good enough for a country boasting a population of 50 million and a sport-centric culture.  To put our haul in to perspective, had Michael Phelps been a country he would placed above South Africa in the honours table with his four gold and two silver medals.

If Sascoc want to compare our performance to anything, let’s start with its own pre-Olympics expectation of 12 medals, called a pipe-dream by many considering we’d only won 19 in the previous five events combined. And when it became clear 12 was never going to be reachable, they quickly spun the target into what they intended to be a “motivating statement” to Team SA. I wonder if even they believe their own BS sometimes.

That aside, the medal table speaks volumes of SA’s lowly haul, no matter which way you dice it. We rank outside the Top 20 in total medals per capita, medals per GDP and gold medals per capita. It’s unlikely we’ll ever rank in the Top 10 best performing countries at the Olympics, but we should be hanging our heads that nations like New Zealand, Iran, Cuba, Jamaica and Kazakhstan all placed above South Africa. With populations and/or quality facilities just a fraction of ours, Sascoc should be hiding in shame rather than beating their chests on a public stage.

To win big at the Olympics, you need one of two things: an Olympic budget the size of Limpopo’s tenderprenuership program or a culture of sporting excellence. Yet to put the entire blame at Sascoc’s door is a little unfair, because the purse strings are ultimately controlled by the Sports Ministry and Fikile “Black People Can’t Swim” Mbalula.

The Sports Ministry needs to bring its knuckles to the table for a good rapping too. While our ministry’s total budget is around R850-million, only a paltry R100-million was spent in preparing and funding our Olympic hopefuls. Compared to Australia’s R1.4-billion annual spend on Olympic preparations, its no wonder our medals haul is as sparse as the Karoo.

The full extent of financial support by Sascoc was initiated through an operational excellence (OPEX) programme established in 2009 to support and fund potential medal winners. Funny then, that the recipient who received the most funding, Cameron van der Burgh, was our first gold medal winner and world record breaker at the games. Not belying the lack of funding, for the high performance programme to only begin in 2009 just shows how reactive and backwards Sascoc is. Someone please tell Gideon Sam it takes more than 18 months of preparation to win Olympic gold.

Even qualifying for the OPEX programme is a farce. You have to be ranked in the Top 8 in your field to qualify for funding and ranked nine to 12 to qualify for part-funding. So if you’re injured and drop out of the rankings, according the bright sparks at Sascoc you won’t get any financial support when you need it most, leaving funding only for those at the top of their sport. Real visionary stuff this.

Financial investment aside, many South African sporting codes are used to having to succeed in spite of administrators and lack of mentoring and support. Success only happens when the winning desire burns so strong within an athlete that no hurdles, financial or otherwise, will get in the way. But for the ultimate in sporting excellence in the absence of budgets, one only needs to look at the relatively poor country of Jamaica, population 3-million, and marvel at its achievements. Here is the finest example of how an intense culture of excellence can be created from scratch and a relatively small budget.

It took the efforts of former world-record sprinter Dennis Johnson more than 30 years ago to set up a US-style college athletic programme to ensure promising high school athletes had a competitive environment to progress through without having to leave the country. A four-year vocational college programme was started that has seen some of the world’s fastest men pass through its doors.

And yet even today, by most standards, the training facilities are second class. Jamaica’s top sprinters cram into Jamaica’s University of Technology’s tiny gym to pump rusty weights, often practicing on the school’s basic grass track. The lanes of the track are marked with diesel and burned because the school can’t afford the machine that lays down chalk lines every week or so. Athletes have a choice: complain about the resources and do nothing or work with what they have.

So before we lay the blame entirely at our administrators, maybe we also need to take a closer look at our athletes, who have so much more available to them than Jamaican, Iranian or Kazakhstani athletes.  Money will surely help lift us out of this Olympic malaise, but without the hunger and desire to rise above these challenges, I’m afraid not much will change in the way of medal tallies in future. DM

Read More:

  • How tiny Jamaica develops so many champion sprinters at The Christian Science Monitor;
  • SA’s Olympic investment: enough money and spent right? at M24i;
  • How tiny Jamaica develops so many champion sprinters in Jamdammers.

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