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October/November 2010

Can SA athletics

win back athletes?

Windy Jonas
Between 1994 and 2010 athletics participation in SA schools grew phenomenally. But now this growth has stalled. With hardly any elite athletes as role models - we could only send 6 athletes to the Commonwealth Games - drastic measures are needed to stimulate interest in athletics and grow this market again, reports FANIE HEYNS

The number of SA learners participating in athletics has not dwindled or grown dramatically during the past year. It was not exceptionally bolstered by the miraculous performances of the Jamaican speedster Usain Bolt, or totally undermined by the controversy surrounding the suspension of the president and board of Athletics South Africa (ASA). But, the very small South African athletics team at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi and lack of transformation in the sport, could have a negative impact on participation at schools levels in years to come, Sports Trader was told.

At the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006 the SA athletics team consisted of 48 members, and won twelve meals, of which five were gold, five silver and two bronze medals. This year ASA selected 11 athletes to go to the Commonwealth Games, but injury and no-shows resulted in only six of them competing in Delhi, where they won two gold, a silver and a bronze medal. With the performances of SA’s swimmers overshadowing the track and field athletes, this could further damage the sport’s image and conspire against school athletes opting to make athletics their first choice.

The small number of athletes selected for the Commonwealth Games also played a role in talented schools athletes leaving the sport.

“I know of a young boy with massive talent, finishing second at the SA Championships, who opted out of athletics because after the announcement of the teams this year, he felt that he would never be selected for a team to represent SA. The lazy way of selecting teams based on scoring tables to just win medals, is costing the sport in a big way,” says Mario Smith, administrative officer of the athletics club of the University of Stellenbosch and coach of a number of promising schools stars.

Harsh qualifying standards that resulted in Hardus Pienaar, the former world junior javelin champion, not being selected for the SA Commonwealth Team in spite of superb performances, could discourage many school athletes to persist with the sport, agrees Chris de Beer, who coaches Pienaar and a number of promising athletes “It surely has a negative impact on athletes participating in the sport.”

Senior SA athletics journalists have warned about the lack of professional opportunities for future international stars. Many top athletes opt for other career opportunities because of a lack of game time in athletics, says Wilhelm de Swart, well-known athletics journalist of Media 24.

Athletes might earn as little as R50 000 per year, simply because they are denied opportunities to represent SA at the African championships, or the Commonwealth Games. That was the case because of extremely tough qualifying standards.

By doing this, these athletes are therefore not exposed to possible international agents who could invite them to European meetings or offer them sponsorships.

Instead, these athletes then opt for other sporting codes. An example is Gerhard van den Heever, Blue Bulls-winger, who was an extremely talented sprinter, but he opted for rugby because of more lucrative opportunities in the oval-ball sport.

Furthermore, the SA athletics team representing the Rainbow Nation at the Commonwealth Games in India had no black athletes — it was the first time since 1992 that an SA athletics team was ‘lilly white’, commented James Evans, recently elected chairman of ASA.

“What has happened now, has not surprised me,” Evans told Beeld newspaper. “There are no proper athletics infrastructures in place in SA right now. For example: there is no sprinting coach in Soweto. Neither is there a javelin coach in Soweto, or in any other black township,” he said.

This lack of representativeness in the SA team could have a negative impact on the levels of participation at school level, since there are no role models for aspiring black and coloured athletes.

Numbers dropping?

There is, however, a difference of opinion whether the number of school age athletes participating in athletics has already dropped.

After the successful World Championships hosted by Germany, and the performance by Bolt, there was an increase in new school age athletes coming to the track to take up the sport, says Smith.

De Beer adds: “My feeling is that the number (of SA schools athletes since the corresponding period in 2009) might have increased slightly because more of the schools with black children started to participate. It is also true that the number of weeks in which primary schools athletes can participate in the sport, has dropped.”

Ilze Wicksell, a former African and SA middle-distance record holder, however, says the number of athletes participating in SA Schools Athletics events has dropped, “When I attend regional meetings, the numbers of athletes had dropped dramatically, sometimes dwindling to four athletes per item.”

She says one of the reasons for this drop is that athletics is competing against other winter sports and learners feel they have limited opportunities to excel in athletics. She further believes more thoughtful selection processes should be contemplated to offer athletes more opportunities to excel.

For example, only the two top athletes at district levels are allowed to gain entry into the Gauteng provincial championships. Unfortunately, two of the strongest provinces, North Gauteng and Central Gauteng, are covered under one provincial umbrella, instead of allowing these two regions to participate under different provincial banners. Many promising, potential top athletes are eliminated in this way.

“We should separate these two regions to allow more of our strongest athletes to take part in the schools championships,” she says.

At primary school level, athletes are limited to three weeks of frenetic activity, thereby creating a vacuum, and allowing other winter sports to take over from athletics. There was almost zero growth in numbers of school kids taking part in athletics, adds Peppi Olevano, general secretary of SA Schools Athletics. “It requires funds to grow the sport, and there are no funds available at school level.

“We have 143 districts in the country participating in athletics and there are approximately 500 children per district. That figure has hardly changed since 2009,” he adds. This means that because certain districts have shown strong growth, other districts must have lost athletes.

“There has been excellent growth in the number-base in the Western Cape and in the Free State over the past two years. The numbers have almost doubled in the Western Cape. The Boland has also been a strong focal point of numerical growth because of strong leadership,” he says.

In Western Province Athletics the number of entries for youth an junior championships are steadily growing, agrees Marcel Otto, a top coach in the Western Province-region. “However, the quality of performances at the championship is not improving - that is, the number of athletes per event a school enters would be increasing, but that does not result in more competitive performances. For example, instead of entering the top four to six athletes per event, a school would enter the top six to ten athletes per event. It creates the impression that there is a growth in numbers, but it probably is not the case. One can “play with numbers” to make an impression.

“From a personal coaching point of view, my group of athletes continues to grow year on year, but that is probably because of the growing lack of coaching talent at schools and because I’m regarded as a good coach (based on the performances of my athletes).”

Nationally, there had been a number of setbacks the past year for SA Schools Athletics, says Olevano. For example, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal sent no representative cross-country teams to the SA Championships because of adverse political conditions and the civil servant strikes.

Growth since 1994

Since the dawn of the new democratic dispensation in 1994 the growth in the number of schools athletes has been exceptional, simply because of the growth in the number of athletes in traditional black and coloured schools, says Olevano. “It could be safe to say that the growth rate has been at least 100%.”

“At this stage, when representative teams are selected, 50% blacks and 50% whites will be picked on merit. In track athletics, at least 60% of the participants would be black and coloured members selected on merit,” he says.

“We have tabled very promising coherent plans about the way ahead for SA Schools Athletics, but because of the lack of unity between Athletics South Africa, the SA Sport Council and Olympic Committee (SASCOCC) and the department of Sport and Recreation SA, everything has been placed on hold,” says Olevano.


There is little marketing of athletics in SA, continues Otto, a factor that could impact negatively on sales of athletics gear, as well as on the growth in the participation of the sport. The only time athletics is mentioned in the media is when there is some kind of scandal, or something negative has happened, or is going to happen, or there is a chance it could happen. Even results of local meetings and championships don’t make the papers anymore.

“Our local newspapers rarely cover track athletics. I cannot remember when last I watched a live TV broadcast of SA athletics — mostly because I can never find out when it’s going to be broadcast,” says Otto. “My athletes sometimes tell me of international athletics they watched on DSTV channels. I do not know of any SA athletics icons my athletes emulate. There are literally none. But, the most enthusiastic athletes will know the names of international athletes who compete and win international meetings,” she says.

Smith says research done in Britain showed that athletics is a lively sport. The emphasis is on shorter meetings (1 to 2 hours at the most). European spectators are very educated when it comes to athletics. “We have the athletes, but due to a lack of proper marketing, we failed over the last few years to create role models, who spark the interest and following of athletics.

“The short athletics season in schools and the emphasis on team sport (easier to achieve success) in schools, and the fact that we do not properly educate our youngsters in athletics anymore, could be a reason that interest is waning,” he says.

Suggestions for turnaround

More and better organised meetings for schools are necessary to grow the numerical base of schools athletics, says De Beer. “There has to be a way to get schools with more black athletes in the system. The culture of schools sport has to be broadened.”

Currently, school athletes are burdened by a two-system competition, which means that SA Schools and provincial championship create two separate competitions. “In numerous situations, athletes have to participate in two championships on one weekend. All athletics competitions should resort under the umbrella of ASA.

“The marketing of the sport has to improve. School athletes rather support a more visible sport. All the negative publicity must surely also have a negative impact. ASA needs to be custodians of the sport and their actions should reflect this,” De Beer says.

Possibly, a different athletics system should be contemplated. Germany boasts the premier system in the world, and we can learn from them.

“We may become one of the best athletics countries in the world in ten years’ time if we could remove athletics out of schools, identify talent like in all other countries and develop these talented teenage athletes by subsidising clubs so that they can employ the best paid professional coaches,” says De Beer.

Windy Jonas is pictured here running the annual Comrades Marathon

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