Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

SA Olympics: We need a hero

2008-09-05 05:39

Mike Finch, Editor: Runner's World magazine

By the time the whistle is blown on Saturday afternoon to start South Africa's Tri-Nations game against Australia at Coca-Cola Park, the Olympics will long be forgotten.

For the next four years athletics, swimming, cycling and the rest of the Olympic sporting minnows will be put on the sidelines of public and commercial interest as South Africans return to the predictable sporting pastimes of cricket, rugby and soccer.

But in four years time these sports will be wheeled out of obscurity for London 2012 and put under typical harsh South African scrutiny and told to perform... erm, make that, win!

People like sprinter Geraldine Pillay for instance, will be asked to win the Olympic 100m title because South Africans don't expect anything less. But in the meantime Pillay, the fastest SA women's sprinter in years, can hardly pay for a place to live and is battling to raise money to travel to Jamaica and train with the world's best.

Pillay didn't make it to Beijing this year. Instead she sat in a cold studio in Auckland Park as an SABC studio guest because she doesn't have the support to ensure she is able to train and look after her health.

But instead, the media and the South African collective consciousness willingly throw around expectations that border on the ludicrous. They expect an oak when only cabbage seeds are planted.

Laughing stock

So let's quit blaming the athletes.

Instead, the trouble lies further up the tree. From the debacle around the sub-standard team kit to the lack of any real sponsors, the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) have single-handedly managed to turn a national team of the country's best sportsmen and women into a laughing stock.

All the sponsors choose to support the Paralympic team. Not that there's any reason they shouldn't, but when the Olympic team cannot muster a single significant sponsor (including no one to even sponsor the team kit), there has to be question marks over the ability of Sascoc to reasonably run sport in this country.

If the report in the Afrikaans Sunday paper, Rapport, is anything to go by, even their ability to keep an athlete like disabled swimmer Natalie du Toit happy ahead of her event, proved difficult.

The last time South Africa did so badly in the Olympics was in 1936 when we won a sole silver medal in boxing. While Khotso Mokoena proved a world-class performer in the long jump to take a silver in Beijing, no one else even got close to a podium with only 14 finals made compared to the 27 made in Sydney in 2000. In Athens in 2004, South Africa won one gold, three silver and two bronze medals. Compare that to the rest of the world where 40 world records were broken while Kenya led the African challenge with 14 medals including five gold.

Get their acts together

However, in SA, since the Athens Games, swimming has been constantly embroiled in a war of words between the star gold medal swimmers and pretentious administrators while track and field athletics in South Africa has all but ground to a halt with little financial support and almost non existent crowds.

So what's the solution? In a country where there are far more important social issues than Olympic medals its unlikely the government will prioritise sport over housing and the poor. So the responsibility lies with the federations to get their acts together and look after their best.

Create heroes. Heroes inspire the young and is the best form of development money can buy. Just look at Kenya and Ethiopia and even Zimbabwe (who took one gold and four medals in total in Beijing). Create heroes and you create commercial properties that bring in money, fans and new stars.

Let's get to it. We've got four years.

  • Mike Finch has covered two Olympic Games in 1992 and 1996 and written on athletics and road running since 1989. Mike has been editor of Runner's World magazine for eight years and was a sports analyst during SABC's Olympic broadcast.

  • Mike Finch has covered two Olympic Games in 1992 and 1996 and written on athletics and road running since 1989. Mike has been editor of Runner's World magazine for eight years and was a sports analyst during SABC's Olympic broadcast.

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