Category: Commenting on Athletics

Where have all the young women gone?

“Where have all the young girls gone, long time passing?
Where have all the young girls gone, long time ago?
Where have all the young girls gone?
Gone for husbands everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?”

That was the question asked by Peter, Mary and Paul in 1962.  In 2018 we can ask the question of Athletics South Africa: Where have all the young women gone?

Despite the constitutional imperative to right the wrongs of the past and not discriminate on the grounds of gender, it is something not taken seriously in South African Athletics.

The 2018 SA Commonwealth Games team was announced recently and out of 13 athletes selected, only 3 are women. That just 23% of the team. This was followed shortly by the announcement of the South African team to the African Cross Country Championships. Of the senior athletes, 8 were selected and only 2 are women. That’s 25% of the team.

As usual, a full junior women’s team was selected, and the argument will probably be made that it is ‘planning for the future’. But were have all the young girls from 2017, 2016, 2015, etc gone? Not to the senior ranks, that is for sure. What is to say 2018 will be any different?

This pattern plays out across the country at provincial level too. There are very few senior women athletes left and those that are there face insurmountable obstacles.

Unfortunately, Athletics South Africa seems to put its quest for glory ahead of addressing this issue. The requirement to put in place programmes to promote gender equity is simply ignored. The attitude seems to be that South Africa women are inferior and should be overlooked. There can be no other explanation for selecting only two women (and thereby not even making up a full team).

That is unfair to women who are trying their best without any official support and often artificial obstacles placed in their way by misogynist administrators.

Given this attitude, don’t be surprised when the powers that be stop selecting women at all. It would probably leave more space for administrators to go on holiday with the teams.

Oh, when will they ever learn?

Development: Are we being honest with ourselves

Development is a hot topic in South African sport. For a long time the concepts of ‘development’ and ‘transformation’ were intertwined, so it was not possible to deal with one, without dealing with the other. And it created bizarre terminology: People were too scared to use the language of apartheid, so instead of saying an athlete was ‘black’ they became a ‘development athlete’.

The absurdity of this became apparent to anyone outsider when a runner would win a major race and be called a ‘development runner’.

For now, let’s leave the issues of transformation aside (that is for a different time, as it is a very problematic area – much needs to be done, but it won’t be while people are using ‘transformation’ to push their own personal agendas). Let’s look at the current success of development programmes. Or the lack of success….

Some starting points are needed, however. The following assumptions will be used in this series of posts:

  1.  Development should be about creating an interest in the sport, such at the athlete chooses athletics as their sport of choice.
  2.  Development is meant to be teaching the athlete the skills needed to be able to do the best that they can do when they reach their peak.
  3. Any human being will be at their physical peak between the ages of around 20-35. In all sports this is when sportspeople perform at their best. Accordingly, development programmes should have as their apex this age group as the measure of success at earlier ages.
  4. For most athletes, from 35 onwards their performance starts to decline. They will remain competitive in their age groups, but only those who have not competed when they are younger will expect to actually improve at any stage once they hit the Masters categories. Development therefore has less of a role to play in the Masters categories. (Note the use of the word ‘less’. It still has a role to play.)
  5. There are outliers who will always create exceptions to the rule. So an 18-year old may be competitive at the Olympics and have a long athletics career, just as a 40-year-old could medal at the Olympics. But they are not the norm.
  6. Success of development is measured in (a) performance at the top level and (b) an increase in depth of performance and numbers at a senior level.

To then measure whether current thinking and attitudes are correct, let’s start with a simple and basic part of the sport: Cross Country. It is the cheapest and easiest part of the sport to organise. Have an open field and you can put together a course. It is often (mistakenly) taken as the starting point for development for distance events on the track and road (mistakenly, as cross country is a discipline in its own right).

Due to the tireless efforts of Ben and Elsa Oliver, results of Western Province (ie Cape Town) cross country races are accurate and available. (The sport in Cape Town owes a lot to the two of them, and they are not appreciated nearly enough.) There is also reason to believe that what is happening in Cape Town is playing out in the rest of South Africa. The attached spreadsheet has data of all WP Cross Country League and Championship races since 2011. The numbers are the total participants in those events.

Participation at WP Cross Country 2011-2017

Let’s analyse just one aspect, to see if Western Province has been getting development right, or if it is doing the exact opposite (ie chasing people away from the sport).

If one looks at the current u20 age group, we can trace them back in two year batches to when they were u13 in 2011. (This is slightly flawed, because the age group covers 18- and 19-year-olds so they may not have been together since 2011, but the trends remain the same even if you look at the current 18-year-olds.).

These are the average league participation levels of this group of athletes (WP does not have u16 and u14 categories at leagues, only at championships):

2011 (u13):  boys: 35  girls: 27

2013 (u15): boys: 57 girls: 24

2015 (u18): boys: 44 girls: 12

2017 (u20): boys 18 girls: 6

At a glance, we will see that apart from an increase in the boys from u13 to u15, fewer and fewer athletes are participating as they get older.

It is so dire, that by the time the girls get to u20 level, less than a quarter are still taking part. Deeper analysis would need to be done to work out if any of the girls who took part at u13 level in 2011 are still participating in 2017.

If it was a case that there are only 18 or 6 (respectively) left but they are the best in the country, then it could be argued that quantity has been sacrificed for quality. Without knocking the athletes (as the system has actually let them down), that is not the case – WP does not have a good history of success at SA Cross Country champs in the u20 category. After all, when only six athletes are racing each other each week (sometimes it is as few as three), what are their chances of competing successfully at the highest level in the absence of really good coaching.

And if we look at the numbers in the u15, u18 and u20 category, there has been a sharp decline among the girls, while the boys has remained fairly steady.

Food for thought, but given these statistics, it is hard to say that any development programme which uses cross country as part of it has been a success. It is probably close to the truth to say it has failed.

Why The Obsession With Honour or Glory?

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.

Has Athletics Gone Mad?

What has happened to the sport of athletics, one of the most pure of all sports?

Let’s start at the very beginning. We don’t know for certain how the sport really began, but we can surmise. Two guys argued about who was the faster of the two. So they had a race. Then guys argued about whether one was faster than the other but they couldn’t race against each other, so they found a distance they knew was correct (this is way before tape measures could be bought in a shop, and GPS would have been considered as magic), which was the mile mark on the road outside the village. The one guy in the village with a hand watch timed it.

And so the sport would have grown. To army men probably argued about who could heave a cannonball further, so they had a competition, and we have the birth of shot put (ending with the massive 16 pound ball we use today).

It was pure and simple, who was the better. No administrators, no complex rules, nothing.

Then, the more people got involved, the more we really wanted to know who was the best. Mainly because then people could gamble it. But, if the competitors could get paid, they might rig the result. So, let’s make the sport amateur (there is also the aristocratic element to this, in that it keeps the working class in their place).

So rules were developed. But these were pure rules. 100m is 100m (not 99.5m). Everyone had to start together so we evolved the start we have today. Then we needed to know who won, so they put a tape across the line. But who really wins, does it help to throw your hand forward? So we have the rule as to the torso having to cross the line.

And the rules got progressively clearer as time passed and technology made it easier to assist. To the extent that we have cameras which can time to 1000th of a second (but interestingly, unlike swimming, we prejudice the athlete furthest away from the gun, who hears the signal from the gun last).

But the rules remained about validity of the performance. Was the race run over 100m? If not, the race is valid, but it can’t be recorded as being a 100m race. If an athlete is allowed to false start, it is not a valid performance and can’t be used to compare to other athletes.

Then the sport became about entertainment. So people wanted to know who was running. The answer was to give the athlete a number and to give the spectators a programme with the names next to the numbers. Makes absolute sense. That’s not about validity of performances, it’s about the presentation of the sport as entertainment.

Then we arrive at 2017 in South Africa….

Athletes can now cut corners in races (even track races!), then can do just about anything which impacts on the validity of performances but they will not be disqualified or their performances rendered invalid.

But woe betide the runner who does not wear his number. Even when the number has no relevance as there is no programme and no-one can identify the runner from his number, if he does not wear it, he will be disqualified, and probably fined too.

We have had a national marathon champion, who won by minutes, disqualified because his number fell off his back. He ran the correct route, he did not cheat, but he wasn’t wearing his back number!

Recreational runners, who are not going to affect the competitive side of the race at all, are called aside after they have run their first half marathon, proud of their achievement. They are then shouted at by an official and disqualified from the results, because they wore the number the were given on their back rather than their front.

If you asked someone not involved with the sport what they would think of the situation that you can cheat but not be disqualified, but you run the correct distance and don’t obstruct anyone else, and you get disqualified for wearing a number which is not used to identify you, they would say it is crazy.

And they would be correct. The sport of athletics in South Africa has gone mad.