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In our sport, the buck must stop somewhere

by ZwemZa on July 22nd, 2017
Ofenste Lebele (Pixies Photography)

Ofenste Lebele (Pixies Photography)

I probably wouldn’t even have known that the world under-18 athletics champs were on in Kenya had Scotty Seaward not told me.

He is a legend in SA televised sport who directed the local studio coverage for the recent marvellous British and Irish Lions rugby tour to New Zealand.

He announced he was involved in the event in Kenya and that South Africa had a few real prospects, so I tuned in.

Expected were the usual glorious failures at junior level with plenty of effort and endeavour but few gold medals. Cubans and Jamaicans and Chinese names were present, so initially, here was but limited confidence of success.

How wrong can you be? In case you missed it, we finished top of the medals table for the first time at the event and completed a clean sweep of the boys’ sprints – one-two in both the 100 and 200m with Tshenolo Lemao beating Retshidisitswe Mlenga in the shorter version and the result reversed in the longer.

In the end we won 10 medals, including five golds over the five-day event. Perhaps the most amazing performance came from Sokwakhana Zazini in the 400 hurdles final where he blew the field apart. It was terrific to watch.

But before we get carried away, it all needs to be put into perspective.

You see, there were no American, British, Australian or Japanese athletes on show. Why? Apparently there were security fears and also clashes with efforts to qualify for other championships, like the Commonwealth Youth Games.

It seems daft that regional concerns can trump a world event but that’s the way it is. In fact, IAAF president Seb Coe has announced that this is the last of the biennial world under-18s and that driving regional competitions would be the focus in future. Maybe costs are a part of it. Who knows?

But some of the performances of our young athletes are right up there in times and distances with the best in the world, regardless of whether they were in Kenya or not. That is the beauty of athletics over other sports. Comparisons can be made and we are getting better.

Add all of this to Wayde van Niekerk, Caster Semenya and our sprinters and long jumpers, plus the recent national championship triumph and you get the feeling a giant is awaking from its slumber.

Alleged scandal at Sascoc might see much-needed change, and perhaps we soon might see our vast potential in athletics finally realised. Here’s hoping.

Sports development and transformation in SA is actually very simple to grasp and manage. It starts from a single philosophy and public declaration.

If any kid in the country wants to play any major sport, they should have the chance. Simple. That is the mantra.

Obviously there are schools everywhere, so they should be vehicles of this in many places. In places where clubs exist, they should partner with schools.

The key question is, who is responsible for it? Where does the buck stop? Is it a matter for the individual disciplines? Is it a matter for the Department of Sport or is it an educational responsibility?

Who pays for it all and who ultimately carries the can for failure or gets the praise for success? These issues have not been finalised satisfactorily and until they do, we will not realise our potential.

In fact, it doesn’t matter who’s responsible as long as someone is. Maybe different provinces can best manage it using different models.

In France, early rugby development is handled by clubs. In the UK it is done by schools. In Australia, regional centres of excellence play a big role in identifying and nurturing talent. In some countries it is all the State from start to finish.

The point is that in each case, promising youngsters get a chance to try different sports and if they are good, they get swept up in the system that ends up in national colours and glory.

We could and should be a world leader in athletics, rugby, soccer, cricket, tennis and boxing. There are probably other sports where we can contend at the top as well. Think hockey, water polo and basketball.

We have the weather, the local traditions, the potential sponsorships and the networks to make it happen. Success at the top is vital because that’s what inspires kids to take up a sport.

But that will only come if the grass roots are organised, planned and nurtured.

Who is ultimately responsible for this and, thus, our sporting success in SA? It’s a good question and until it is answered, we will continue to scratch the surface.

John Robbie

* Robbie is a former Transvaal, Ireland and British and Irish Lions scrumhalf.

Disclaimer: ZwemZa encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on ZwemZa are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of ZwemZa.

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