Johannesburg - On Tuesday, an innocuous-looking email from Athletics SA (ASA) landed in the old inbox, not so much with a notification as it did with a thud.
Said missive was the obligatory back-slapping expected after a national championships in which Akani Simbine and Wayde van Niekerk won the 100m and 200m with times of 9.95 seconds and 19.90 seconds, respectively, and Luvo Manyonga flew low to yet another African long jump record – 8.65m.
“All our six Olympic finalists from Rio 2016 gave incredible performances, and we must not be ashamed to pat ourselves on the back as an athletics family for a job well done,” said ASA president Aleck Skhosana.
Represent the country
The jarring thing about the press release was that Skhosana, who had taken more direct credit for ASA in an interview on Umhlobo Wenene FM on Saturday, had dismissed the same national champs in a TV interview just over a month ago as a “small competition”.
Had it been up to him and ASA, Van Niekerk, Simbine and the others should have been in the Bahamas on the weekend of the national championships for the IAAF’s world relay championships.
“Those athletes who are identified and those who are confirmed will be expected to represent the country and skip the SA champs,” Skhosana told eNCA. “ASA doesn’t prepare athletes for the SA champs.
“Athletes always want to be where it’s easy to excel ... the country comes before provinces or a small competition like the SA champs,” he said.
While most of us may have felt a mea culpa of sorts was in order, the ASA way was to glibly move on to “all’s well that ends well”, taking a fair dollop of the credit for something it almost cocked up.
Better yet, we are still in the dark about what the alternative plan is for the relay teams to qualify for the World Championships in London later this year.
This is despite the fact that getting the relay team to qualify was so important that ASA was willing to sabotage practically its whole national championships to do it.
But for now, with the athletes’ #FillUpPotch initiative having not only filled up the stadium, but also captured the public and, hopefully, sponsors’ imagination, they are content to ride on the athletes’ coat-tails.
Attitude needs work
The whole stand-off between ASA and its athletes suggests two things: the governing body still thinks that athletes can be treated like school kids, and our athletes’ recent performances have made them strong enough to defy the powers that be.
Whatever your view, it is not a healthy situation because, in the same way that professional athletes, who by the looks of it organise pretty much everything by themselves, the tail should not wag the dog.
The narrative that has emerged may be that the athletes are achieving whatever they are in spite of ASA instead of because of it.
While recent events would suggest so, ASA can pat itself on the back for providing an environment more stable than the one that existed before this administration.
In fact, it does try to help – middle distance runner Elroy Gelant recently thanked it for facilitating his trip to Kenya.
But, clearly, its organisational skills and attitude to the athletes needs work.
What ASA needs to realise is that, if it is to be in charge of world-class athletes, its standards need to be dragged along to something approaching what its athletes are doing out there on the track.
If there are coat-tails to be ridden, maybe ASA should try riding those.
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