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Left to right: Clarence Munyai, a Gr12 learner from the TuksSport High School, was the second youngest athlete to compete in the 200m at the IAAF World Championships in London; World champion jumper Luvo Manyonga also trains at TuksSport; elite 100m sprinter Akani Simbine graduated from Tuks while competing internationally. Photos: Reg Caldecott.

Q4 2017

SA athletes perform ... against all odds

Wayde, Akani, Caster, Luvo — just a few of the instantly-recognisable names of super stars of the athletic track who make South Africans proud. Do their outstanding performances — despite little support from the sports authorities — inspire a new generation of athletes at grassroots level? asks ANTOINETTE MULLER

In 2015, Akani Simbine became the second South African ever to break the 10 second barrier in the 100m. It was a 9.99 second effort, run at a European Permit meeting in Slovenia. At the time, the sprinter said: “Now that I’ve got it (sub-10 seconds) out of the way I will be able to run those times consistently and I hope to go even faster.”

Fast-forward just over two years and not just Simbine, but Wayde van Niekerk, Thando Roto and Henricho Bruintjies have all broken that mark.

Think of it as South Africa’s own four-minute mile effect. When one athlete achieves, the rest believe they can follow. Nowhere else is the evidence of the country’s athletic future more evident than at the U18 IAAF World Athletics Championships held in Kenya this year.

The squad clocked the country's best ever medal haul at a major global athletics championship, earning 11 podium places to finish top of the table. Most notably, Tshenolo Lemao became the country's first ever world title winner in the 100m event.

Athletics has widest reach

These successes can be attributed to a number of factors, but as with most things, it starts at grassroots. In terms of participation, athletics is one of the widest reaching sports in the country, especially at primary school level.

Statistics from the department of Sport and Recreation South Africa (SRSA) ranks athletics as the sport with the second most participants at primary level — second only to netball — and third most at high school level — pipped only by soccer and netball. Out of the 12 600-plus schools on SRSA's books, 9 723 indicate that they offer athletics.

Participation from an early age is critical since there is plenty of evidence that suggests that meaningful practice from youth level will, more often than not, provide an athlete with a base from which to build future success.

That is not to say that hard work is the only way in which success at elite level will one-day be achieved, or that genetic outliers do not contribute, but it is the base that makes a difference. Chances are that any successful sporting star you can think of started participating in some sport at a very young age.

But, consistent progress through age groups is more difficult. The drop off in participation between primary and high school is evidence of that.

The positive is that, unlike rugby and cricket, success in athletics is accessible to all learners — as the numbers show. While lack of facilities the biggest barrier to entry for almost all other school sports, athletics can take place almost anywhere. Promising athletes therefore don’t have to come from more elite schools to have a chance of achieving success.

Two of South Africa’s gold medallists — Caster Semenya and Luvo Manyonga — came from schools you might not ordinarily consider sport schools. Semenya went to Nthema Secondary School, while Manyonga attended Desmond Mpilo Tutu Senior Secondary School.

For runners specifically, road running clubs also play a huge role to play in fostering and identifying talent. Hundreds of running clubs in every corner of every province offer homes to aspiring and established runners of all ages.

With a new race added to the South African calendar almost every year — especially in the middle distance category — athletics is the most inclusive sport in the country. If you are a talented runner, chances are good that you will get spotted.

But, it’s not all moonshine and roses for everyone. In 2015, the Harmony Academy in Welkom, renowned for its role in nurturing a number of Sevens players, shut its doors. Reliant on private funding, it just wasn’t sustainable anymore.

Some set-backs

In the Cape, the Western Cape Sport School finds itself in a state of flux, uncertain how some of its programmes will be funded.

And therein lies the crux. South Africa’s economy makes for uncertain times. And while mass participation is booming, the step up will always be a challenge.

Any aspiring athlete dreams of winning medals. But, in order to do that he needs to gain experience by testing himself against the best in the world. It’s about getting a taste of what those big crowds are like and responding to that euphoria. It’s about access to opportunities.

Unfortunately, Athletics South Africa this year excluded fourteen athletes who met IAAF qualification standards from the team sent to the IAAF World Championship. Six of them stood a chance of progressing further than the first round.

When the reward of events like the World Championship falls away, the incentive for young athletes to work tirelessly — largely without the support of these very same administrators — to represent their country also falls away.

Caster Semenya, Wayde van Niekerk, Akani Simbine, Luvo Manyonga and all of South Africa’s other athletes have doubtless inspired a whole generation of aspiring young stars.

And while some of them will go on to achieve great things, it’s just a shame that more can’t be done to catch those who won’t. Because if we could, South Africa would kick even more dust into the eyes of rival countries.

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