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Athletics | School | Strong performance Photos: Nicol du Toit
November 2016

Athletic field events

strong at school

Typically, the school system is where most youngsters are introduced to the various athletic events. While track is strong at school level, it’s interesting to see how often field events, which provide more retail sales opportunities, are offered as well, CARIN HARDISTY and CHILTON MELLEM found

The Olympic and Paralympic games are fading memories: the heroes have returned home, and the viewers are (presumably) back off their couches where they had been glued, watching the likes of Wayde van Niekerk, Caster Semenya and Luvo Mayonga carving out their names in history.

With the games come and gone, we wanted to know* how much interest there is in athletics among South African school learners … and what market is there for retailers to sell athletic products to these schools? Sports Trader therefore invited schools to take part in an email survey* on athletic participation.

The schools that told us that they offer athletics all have some running events, but the vast majority also offer various field events. Almost all offer shotput (95%), long jump (91%), high jump (86%), hurdles (82%), and javelin and discus (77% each).

More field participation

Some responding schools who offer athletics even indicated that field events actually account for higher participation numbers than running.

As can be expected, all schools that offer athletics offer track running. While learners participate in track from a very young age, they only get introduced to field events at a later stage. For example, at Laerskool Krugersdorp-Noord in Gauteng the U10 age group are the first learners to participate in field events, says Quintin Botha.Only the U13’s take part in javelin at his school, but activities such as high jump and hurdles see a lot of interest among the younger primary school learners.

Because track running can accommodate many learners, this is the event that attracts the most participation, he explains.

After track (43%), long jump (24%) is the activity with the single highest participation interest, responding schools indicated. Just under twenty percent indicated that cross country and shotput attract the most participants, followed by high jump (14%).

High jump, long jump, shotput, discus and javelin are all very popular at his school, says Shaun van Wezel, sport director of The King’s School in Gauteng.

“Certain areas indicate stronger participation in certain events,” says Pieter Lourens of South African Schools Athletics (SASA). “For example, throwers tend to come from Gauteng and Free State, and you will find more sprinters in the Western Cape, while distance runners also hail from Gauteng. We are facing problems in the horizontal jumps!”

Lack of resources

SASA offers more track than field events on their yearly programme. “Participation in track or field events depend on the availability of facilities and the necessary equipment,” explains Lourens.

“The majority of schools in South Africa do not have facilities for athletics and are dependent on municipal grounds, which are not that accessible. Deprived schools do not have the necessary field events equipment, because of a lack of finance and corporate support, not to mention the lack of government support.”

Only 8% of the respondents to our survey indicated that they do not offer athletics at their schools — and the reasons were indeed lack of resources. “We have no coach, no facilities and no money!” laments Rachel Krull of Southernwood Primary School in the Eastern Cape.

“For the past 10 years, we have not been able to offer athletics,” says Ravi Padayachee of St Anne’s Primary School in KwaZulu Natal. “The school does not have the facilities and the nearest facility poses a criminal element threat to learners and staff.”

But, even if a school has the resources to offer all athletic disciplines, the activities on offer can be heavily influenced by what the nearby schools offer. Due to schools’ competitive nature when it comes to sport, if there is no one to compete against, there is less incentive for the school to push the activity.

“The English speaking schools in our area do not participate or offer any field events, therefore our highest participation is in track running,” says J.H. van Heerden of Glenview Primary in Gauteng.

But, even there the participation numbers are fairly low for this well-resourced school. “About 120 out of 900 learners [13%] take part in athletics formally,” says Van Heerden. “Also, around 40 learners takes part in cross country.” He adds that the number of learners who take part in cross country is considerably higher before selection for the school team.

Participation growth?

Participation numbers have been stable for the majority (48%) of respondents who offer athletics, with numbers staying about the same for the past five years.

“The participation has remained relatively stable as sport is compulsory at our school,” explains Graeme Wepener of the South African College Schools (SACS) in the Western Cape.

He hasn’t seen significant changes, agrees Botha. “The most important factor is well planned try-outs, good events for athletes to participate in, and good coaching from experienced coaches.”

There are even schools that report an increase in participation (14% of respondents offering athletics). One example is Rynfield Primary School in Gauteng, where numbers increase every year, says Grant Wright.

There has been an increase in awareness of athletics among their learners and this has led to an increase in participation, says Izak Duvenage of the East Rand Christian Academy.

“Ours is much the same in terms of numbers, maybe even higher, but we are in a unique situation where athletics is a very important sport for the school and we participate in the two biggest interschool meetings in the Western Cape,” says Seef le Roux of Bloemhof High School.

A third of the respondents that offer athletics, however, indicate that they have seen a decrease in participation numbers.

“Participation is more or less the same as five years ago, but there has been lower participation for more than five years now,” says Millie van Wyk of Jim Fouché High School in the Free State. “This is because learners must choose and specialise [in a sport] — there is not enough time to do more than one sport. Netball, hockey and rugby are played and practiced during the whole year.”

“The learners are very busy with other sport like swimming, tennis and cricket at the same time,” agrees Venessa Diedericks of Hoërskool Piketberg in the Western Cape.

“Given the high profile and success of other summer sports — cricket and water polo especially, but also tennis, basketball, swimming and rowing — numbers [taking part in athletics] are relatively small and constant,” says James Frazer of Rondebosch Boys’ High School in the Western Cape.

“The drop in numbers is mainly from grade 10 upwards. Juniors are still keen,” explains Mark Julyan of St Benedict’s College in Gauteng. “A number of boys run long distance through the year (cross country in winter and middle distance track in summer), but maybe boys will sprint in addition to other sports, and in summer this is the highest number of participants.”

Not only does athletics have to compete with other sports, learners also have academic responsibilities. The children are overloaded, says Karin Pienaar of Stulting Primary in the Eastern Cape.

Others simply cannot attend practice sessions, because they live in rural areas and have to catch taxis home, says Erika Swanepoel of Bosveld Primary School in Limpopo.

Some parents also make it difficult for learners to participate, says Erica Minnie of Laerskool Tjaart van der Walt in the Eastern Cape.

The performance of South Africa’s top athletes also influence youngsters. “Senior sports always have a big influence on our junior sports,” says Wright. “Caster Semenya, Wayde van Niekerk, Sunette Viljoen, etc. play a huge role in drumming up of interest among our youth. Our pupils see them performing well and winning Olympic medals, then they want to mimic them on their primary school sports fields.”

The impact of coaching

Certain schools do not have the privilege of technical, skilled and qualified coaches, which especially influences the participation of learners in field events, says Lourens.

Over the past few years, the quality of their learners' athletic abilities has drastically gone down, says Le Roux. “There are very few learners who come here [to high school] with the appropriate technical skills expected of them at that stage of their physical development.

“We are also getting increasing numbers of learners who have had no exposure to any form of training, which is indicative of the fact that there is very little going on in terms of athletics coaching/development in primary schools in our area.”

Other schools have improved the quality of their learners’ performance. “We have grown in our level of competing with a few of our kids going through to national [tournaments],” says Yolandé van der Merwe of Kabega Primary School in the Eastern Cape.

The availability of coaching not only impacts on the performance of learners … it can also impact on the number who wish to, or can, take part in the activity.

They recently appointed a sprint coach at the school, which has led to an increase in participation numbers, says Yaw Fosu-Amoah of St Alban’s College in Gauteng.

At Laerskool Krugersdorp-Noord, Botha hasn’t noticed a difference in the number of athletes who participate — but he has seen the quality improve. This is “mostly due to the private coaching and support that increased,” he explains.

His school has quite a few hurdlers and many receive coaching from outside coaches. “We approached an external coach to start coaching hurdles from this year at our school,” he adds.

Then there are schools who are lucky enough to have qualified sports personnel who themselves have excelled at the sport, for example Hoërskool Oos-Moot in Gauteng — their sports organiser, Myrtle Bothma, is the holder of the SA 400m hurdles record and represented South Africa at the 1992 Olympic Games.

Level of participation

The majority of learners who take part in athletics, take part at interhouse level. After this, the numbers go down — but this is because only a certain number of learners qualify to compete at higher levels.

All of their learners go through the try-out/assessment phase for interhouse, after which 40% are selected to take part, explains Wright. Thereafter 20% of his school’s learners are selected for the school team to compete on a higher level.

Potchefstroom Gimnasium in North West has a similar percentage (25%) of learners who compete in athletics at a higher level.

“We’re the strongest platteland school in South Africa, with 318 athletes who went to national championships with more than 120 medals in the last 10 years,” says Head of Sport Arnold van der Merwe.


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