Cape Town - With the 2019 season coming to a close, the country's elite stars are refocusing towards the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Athletics South Africa (ASA) president Aleck Skhosana reflects on the year that was and looks ahead to the new season.
Question: Looking back, what were the highs and lows of the 2019 athletics season?
Answer: It was a very exciting year for Athletics South Africa. We achieved many things.
Of course one that stood out for us was the team we sent to the African U18 and U20 Championships (in Abidjan) which was the first of its kind in Africa. This was (a concept) initiated by ASA and accepted by the entire continent. Our athletes swept almost everything in the sprints, jumps and throws, and that ensured South Africa was again acknowledged as the powerhouse of athletics in Africa.
We also had a team that went to the IAU 50km World Championships (in Brasov) and they came back with an individual silver (from Lungile Gongqa) and team gold. We also sent a team to the World Relays in Yokohama. They broke the African record in the 4x200m and they came back with a silver medal behind the United States, which motivated us and the country as a whole.
After that we sent a team to the World Athletics Championships in Doha with high expectations. Unfortunately we didn't come back with medals, but we are satisfied that our athletes were there in the field from day one to the last day. Some exceptional performances were recorded by our athletes and they broke the African 4x100m relay record, so we are happy, but at the same time we are not happy because we wanted medals.
We are back on track and working towards making sure in 2020 we are successful at the Olympics the CAA African Senior Championships and other events. I'm sure we will be able to do better next year because we have appointed a sprint coach (Paul Gorries) who is already working with a team of athletes for the Olympics.
Q: In terms of diversity, it seems South Africa is starting to drop a bit in some areas, like the field events. Can you tell us what is being done to supplement coaches in preparing the athletes?
A: Athletics has different disciplines, including jumps, throws, sprints, hurdles, relays, middle distances, long distances and ultra-distances, and we are not lacking in any of those. We had one young boy (Kyle Rademeyer) breaking the South African youth record in the pole vault in Paarl earlier this year, jumping 5.30m. Last year we produced the world junior champion in the shot put (Kayle Blignaut), so we are there in the field events. The only area we are a bit worried about is our women athletes, but we are happy with most areas.
Coaches are working on all these areas to ensure they can take the respective athletes through and ensure they are in line with what USA, Jamaica, the UK and other countries are doing. So we are very focussed on all disciplines and we do have coaches, and the best thing is that we have young coaches who are preparing athletes to be among the best in the world.
The athletes must also be disciplined and prepared to take instructions from the coaches. And in terms of diversity, we're also seeing black athletes competing in events which they did not compete in before and we are very excited about that.
Q: From the national federation's perspective, what progress has Athletics South Africa and the sport made this year?
A: We have aligned ASA and have come up with a vision that is going to take us forward for years to come. We have refocused ASA and taken it from a situation in which the federation believed it needed to fulfil its national duties only. We have said we are not only a national federation. We are an international federation and we must therefore compete with the best of the best.
It's not always about money. It's about how hard you prepare and how much you take care of athletes, coaches and all other stakeholders who have made the sport what it is. In the past we had a silo mentality between road running, track & field and cross country, but those disciplines have now been given a strict mandate to work together because some athletes compete in multiple events.
We are also having a coaches' symposium in Potchefstroom (29 Nov-1 Dec) where we will have top coaches from Kenya and Botswana who have Olympic champions and world record holders under their belts. They will come in to give us lectures on how to prepare our athletes in order to beat them. Their men and women are beating us, so we have to learn from them. If we have to poach them to South Africa, then (coaches) let's do it because other countries are doing that.
We want an exchange with coaches. They are our neighbours and they are among the giants of athletics, so we have to learn from them. Once they talk to our coaches then we may have to change the way we do things. We have learned by going through our archives at ASA and we have spoken to former athletes. Now we have to learn from international athletes and train with them either by taking our athletes to them or by bringing them here.
We must accept that we live in a global athletics village. We cannot be an island in South Africa and think that we can beat Americans and Jamaicans. We have to invite them to our competitions, and go and train and compete with them. We must also send our coaches and physiotherapists to understand how to avoid injuries, how to manipulate muscles and make sure athletes don't get injured when they're supposed to be competing.
So we have looked at a wide range of issues and different people are working on that. We want to see what other people are doing, and we must continuously evolve so we can make significant improvements.
Q: As one of the leading countries in African athletics, what will South Africa be able to offer in order to reciprocate exchange programmes with other countries?
A: Already we are offering a lot to other countries. If you go to Tshwane, Potchefstroom and Stellenbosch around December, there are athletes already preparing for next year's Olympic Games, and many of them come here to do that. We also send our athletes to Gemona (in Italy) but that process needs to be structured properly. When we move there we must do so with a mandate. It must not only be individual coaches moving there. It must be Team South Africa moving there with a team manager and a head coach. They must not take that as a holiday. They must take it as a training camp in preparation for the global season.
When we want them to come back, they must come back because we have noticed some of the athletes over-compete when they go to Europe and by the time they are expected to deliver on behalf of the country they are flat and they can't pick up again. We have more than 500 athletes who come to South Africa for training camps, but we are not taking our own athletes and putting them there so they can rub shoulders with those coaches and athletes, so they can see what other people are doing and learn from them.
Q: Having struggled a little more at the highest level this year than the country did over the few previous seasons, do you feel the sport can still look forward to a positive Olympics in Tokyo?
A: The mandate is very clear. We must be able to win medals at the Tokyo Olympics. We want even more medals than we won in Rio in 2016 (which was two golds and two silvers) and we want our athletes to be ready, especially in the sprints, the relays and the jumps. Some athletes are injured but they must come back and do what they are supposed to do. If we are not going to go there and deliver what is expected of us, then we should not go there. We are not visitors. That's our policy and philosophy at ASA. We send people who are going to fly the flag of the Republic of South Africa.
- Athletics South Africa