It is not hard to see where athletics in South Africa is going wrong. It is quite simple: The emphasis is in all the wrong places.

There was an article on the IOL website entitled: SA students fall short at World University Games. Clearly, the impression is that they failed. They won five medals at a highly competitive competition, ahead of countries like the United Kingdom, Spain, New Zealand,etc. But apparently they failed.

But is the medals table the real test of success? Is sport really about only those three places (and who decided that only three get medals)? The women’s football team finished 4th, an outstanding achievement, but consigned to failure because they didn’t win a medal.

We should be taking our hats off to University Sport South Africa, because they gave students a chance to gain experience at this level. If we were objective about what we are trying to achieve in the long term, we would thank them for filling that role. The World Students Games cannot be about who wins on the medal table. There are too many other factors – just one being who classifies as a student.

No, surely it is about giving these students the experience that they can go on to putting into practice in future in sport, as participants or coaches, or in life in general.

ASA’s SELECTION POLICY

Which brings us back to where athletics has got it wrong. Look at the following on the Athletics South Africa website:

“Question: What are the main, and perhaps the only reason for sending teams to represent Athletics South Africa at any competition?
Answer: To send teams to bring back honour to South Africa.

Honour can only be achieved through top class performances. So for us in athletics, honour will be reflected primarily in the number of medals we achieve at any competition.”

MEANING OF THE WORD ‘HONOUR’

This is mind boggling. We are chasing “honour”. What does this mean?

The Collins English Dictionary describes it as follows:

“1. uncountable noun: Honour means doing what you believe to be right and being confident that you have done what is right.

 Synonyms: integrityprinciplesmoralityhonesty
 2. countable noun: An honour is a special award that is given to someone, usually because they have done something good or because they are greatly respected.
Synonyms: titleawarddistinctionaccolade
 3. verb [usually passive]: If someone is honoured, they are given public praise or an award for something they have done.
Synonyms: acclaimcelebratepraisedecorate
 4. singular noun: If you describe doing or experiencing something as an honour, you mean you think it is something special and desirable.
Synonyms: privilegecreditfavourpleasure
 5. passive verb: If you say that you would be honoured to do something, you are saying very politely and formally that you would be pleased to do it. If you say that you are honoured by something, you are saying that you are grateful for it and pleased about it.
 6. verb: To honour someone means to treat them or regard them with special attention and respect.
 7. verb: If you honour an arrangement or promise, you do what you said you would do.
 8. uncountable noun [usually NOUN noun]: Honours is a type of university degree which is of a higher standard than a pass or ordinary degree.
 9. countable noun: Judges, and mayors in the United States, are sometimes called your honour or referred to as his honour or her honour.

 

WHERE IS THE ‘HONOUR’?

It is hard to see how winning a medal brings honour to South Africa. Are we more respected as a country because Wayde van Niekerk wins a medal? Do other countries praise us because of this? When you visit Istanbul, will people stop when they hear you are from South Africa and praise you because Wayde won a medal? Did the UN General Assembly give us a standing ovation when Caster won a medal? No.

Maybe in the days of the Greek City States or the Empires of the 19th and 20th Centuries was there a concept of ‘honour’ being attached to sporting performance. Maybe ASA is still chasing after colonial glory?

WHERE ARE THE FUTURE ATHLETES TO BRING US ‘HONOUR’?

If we take the first meaning of honour, then we should be more interested in producing honourable people. And that has nothing to do with winning medals. Surely the following is really the test for success or not of a team. The big renta-crowd at the airport is irrelevant. Let’s look at what happens in the next few months:
  • Does the fact that Wayde won a medal mean more people take up the sport? Of course it does. But the way Wayde conducts himself also means that lots of parents want their kids to do the sport, because they like the fact that you can be great and a decent person. The fact that Caster makes a point of congratulating everyone in her race definitely inspires others to do the same.
  • Then the 16-year-old kid decides to take up the sport, to become the new Wayde, Caster, Luvo, etc. And what happens? They can’t find a local club, because so few still cater for track & field. But, even if they stick it out, they will come up against so many obstacles – only a handful of provinces have provincial track & field championships, some don’t send athletes to SA Champs. But the kid still sticks it out, then hits ASA’s selection standards and realises that playing Ultimate Frisbee is far easier, with less politics, and drops out.
  • Soon, we find that the hint for honour (they probably mean glory) has meant such strict standards that if you are not world class by 20 you may as well give up. And many will. Or they definitely will after university. So the pool gets smaller. Until there is no replacement when Wayde retires.

Compare this to the Poles. If you watched the World Championships they seemed to have someone in nearly every final. The same at the Summer Universiade. They may not have any world record holders, but they certainly have a very wide and a very deep base. From that base will come the next two or three generations of athletes and some will go on to win medals. They will never have to hope and pray that Wayde or Caster don’t catch a cold.

REALITY CHECK

As for honour, if we want honour then we don’t need controversy. The whole world knows that South Africa left athletes at home. The whole world knows that administrators and their girlfriends went to the World Champs while the athletes stayed at home. The whole world knows that we selected an athlete because he was an area champion, despite the fact he had been stripped of that title. (Luvo Manyonga – not the athlete in question – is actually a shining example of a guy who did the right thing – made a big mistake, admitted it, got on with is life and rebuilt his athletics career. There was never a question that he was trying to get an athletic advantage, it was a lifestyle issue which he has turned around. Others have been given an easy ride back from far more serious situations.)

Maybe Athletics South Africa should take the doping issues in South Africa more seriously and the fact that on the ground the sport, especially track & field and cross country, is shrinking every year more seriously and try to build a bigger base from where the next generation of stars will come.

At this rate, when Wayde, Luvo and Caster retire we will be in serious trouble.