SA are running into a brick wall

12 November 2013 - 02:54 By Ross Tucker
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Last week, Lusapho April raced through the streets of New York to claim third place in one of the most competitive marathons in the world.

It has been six years since a South African reached the podium of a major marathon, and so April's performance was celebrated by fans for what it was - a beacon of hope, not only for his short-term future, but for aspirant young runners who now have something tangible to emulate, rather than to dream about.

Also last week, I had the pleasure of conducting research on a group of five elite Kenyan runners with my colleague Dr Jordan Santos of Spain. We had flown the five to South Africa for a week, and put them through a range of tests to help us understand the physiology of these extra-ordinary athletes.

Earlier that day, they'd been tested at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, and then travelled to the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport, where they would stay for further research trials.

They had been blown away by the fact that a 45-minute drive linked two truly world-class facilities, far superior to anything they had in the whole of Kenya (imagine we had driven them from Potchefstrom to Pretoria, before flying them to Cape Town via Durban, because all these places have equally amazing high-performance infrastructure).

Almost bewildered, one of the Kenyans, Anthony, asked me why, with such "privilege", we do not produce more world-class talent in distance running?

As any scientist would do in such as situation, I turned the question back to him: "You have achieved success, you don't need to speculate about the reasons, you already know what it takes, so why do you think it is?"

Now, my experience of Kenya's elite runners is that they're very gentle, thoughtful people, and Anthony was no different.

After a moment or two of consideration, he had his answer.

"It's because you give too much, and it makes people too comfortable. There is nothing to strive for."

Now, Anthony should be forgiven for not entirely understanding how South Africa's socio-economic situation impacts on sport - in reality, our world-class high-performance infrastructure is not accessible to most South Africans, let alone "given" to them.

Money gets you through the door, not talent. That's because of a crippled administrative system, propped up by under-resourced volunteers, who bend under the weight of either corrupt or incompetent political appointees, which means we probably access around 10% of our potential.

But what Anthony has understood is the value of aspiration and purpose. He trains three times a day, pushing his body through fatigue and pain in the pursuit of the highest possible goal - a better life.

What helps him is that he has seen the possibilities for himself, rather than having an abstract dream of them.

In Kenya, most of the elite runners come from one tribe, and the towns of Eldoret and Iten are so dense with internationally successful runners that every person is connected to a champion in some way.

As a result, every young Kenyan knows exactly what it takes. They also know that success brings huge rewards - the average annual salary in Kenya is $1000 (about R10000); winning a major marathon is worth at least $130000.

That is a big incentive. What Anthony's answer hints at is that in South Africa, we have invested in bricks and mortar rather than people, to first create a winning culture and build the intellectual capital for success.

In Lusapho April, we have such a person. In Elana Meyer and Bruce Fordyce we have legends who are trying to develop local athletes' aspirations with their distance-running projects.

What we really need is further people-investment, and the right incentives to capitalise on our potential.

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