The goal is medals, not miracles

15 August 2013 - 09:29 By David Isaacson
David Isaacson
David Isaacson

Success in athletics is partly genetic: Jamaica produces sprinters and East Africa churns out distance runners.

Money is important too: Britain invested generously to reclaim its position as a top track and field nation.

And there is individual genius, which seems to be the sole strategy employed by Athletics South Africa - sit back and wait for talent to emerge.

South African stars like Hestrie Cloete, Caster Semenya, Hezekiel Sepeng, Mbulaeni Mulaudzi and Khotso Mokoena were not mined out of obscurity. The same is true of Anaso Jobodwana, who admits he went to study in the US primarily to get an education, not because he believed he would become a top sprinter.

For more than a decade I have heard theories: a hilly part of Transkei is the perfect landscape for grooming distance runners, like Kenya does; South Africa's best genetics for sprinting are in the Western Cape (specifically in coloureds).

No results, though.

Ironically, the opposite is in evidence in the South African team at the World Championships in Moscow. Elroy Gelant, who grew up in George, is in Friday's 5000m final, while speedster Jobodwana is from the Eastern Cape.

This showpiece marks the 20th year since South Africa competed at its first World Championships - in Stuttgart in 1993.

The statistics show that two decades down the road, South African athletics is still drifting aimlessly. Ten World Championships and we have produced three top-eight finishers (some medallists, most not) at six of them.

Consistency, yes. Growth, no.

South Africa's best medal haul has been four, on two occasions, in 2003 and 2011.

By early yesterday afternoon, Jamaica, Ethiopia and Kenya had three medals apiece; nine combined.

Add up the gross domestic products of these three countries and the total barely exceeds one-third of South Africa's.

The problem is not a lack of money, it is the absence of a concrete high-performance plan in South Africa. Look at how ASA president James Evans refused to make a medal prediction before coming here, claiming it would put undue pressure on the athletes. That was a cop-out. Top-performing athletes win medals because of expectations, particularly their own.

Evans expressed confidence that South Africa would nevertheless get one or two medals, explaining: "Once an athlete has qualified for a final, anything is possible."

If his "anything is possible" statement reflects ASA's attitude to high-performance sport then the federation may as well close shop. LJ van Zyl, the 400m hurdles bronze medallist from 2011 who failed to advance beyond the heats here, concedes there is no lottery at this level. "I thought I might come here and surprise," he admitted. "But in 400m hurdles you don't surprise. You know [the time] you're going to run."

To make predictions you need a plan to create medal opportunities, and knowledge of each athlete's form at any given moment. South African swimming and rowing have head coaches overseeing programmes. But athletics, the showpiece sport of the Olympics, doesn't.

That needs to change urgently.

South Africa has high-performance athletes; it's high-performance administrators we need.