Buoyed by re­sults in Lon­don, South Africa’s sta­tus in the sports world con­tin­ues to rise, Paul Waldie writes


Coun­try has been turn­ing heads with per­for­mances last year in Rio and at this year’s world track and field cham­pi­onships in Lon­don

Africa has long been con­sid­ered a hot­bed of track and field tal­ent with dozens of cham­pi­ons com­ing from coun­tries such as Kenya and Ethiopia. But a new sports pow­er­house is emerg­ing from an of­ten over­looked part of the con­ti­nent: South Africa.

South Africa has taken the sports world by storm in re­cent years thanks to the ef­forts of a hand­ful of coaches and a pri­vately funded high-per­for­mance cen­tre that has trans­formed the way ath­letes are iden­ti­fied and de­vel­oped. The re­sults have been even more re­mark­able con­sid­er­ing there’s vir­tu­ally no na­tional pro­gram in the coun­try and the gov­ern­ing body for ath­let­ics nearly went bank­rupt a few years ago amid al­le­ga­tions of fraud.

South Africa’s team at the world ath­let­ics cham­pi­onships in Lon­don is in third place with five medals, and the coun­try is ex­pected to win at least one more gold medal on Sun­day, when favourite Caster Se­menya runs in the 800-me­tre fi­nal. It’s by far the team’s best show­ing at the cham­pi­onships, yet it could have been even bet­ter, con­sid­er­ing that more than 20 ath­letes who qual­i­fied for Lon­don were left off the na­tional team be­cause of a con­tro­ver­sial se­lec­tion process.

With Ja­maica’s Usain Bolt re­tir­ing, South Africa can also now claim some of the bright­est sprint stars, in­clud­ing 400-me­tre world-record holder Wayde van Niekerk, who won gold and sil­ver in Lon­don, along with Akani Sim­bine and Thando Roto, who have both gone well un­der 10 sec­onds in the 100 me­tres.

It’s not just on the track where South Africa is ex­celling. Sunette Viljoen is one of the best javelin throw­ers in the world. And the coun­try has pro­duced a slew of world lead­ers in swim­ming, judo, row­ing and triathlon. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, South African ath­letes won 10 medals, their best show­ing in more than 60 years and an in­crease from six medals in 2012 and one in 2008.

“We just be­lieve in each other and push each other and sup­port each other,” said Luvo Manyonga, who won the men’s long jump in Lon­don last week. “We just want to show the world that South Africa is a coun­try that has sport.”

It’s quite a turn­around con­sid­er­ing that South Africa was banned, be­cause of apartheid, from most in­ter­na­tional sports com­pe­ti­tions for more than 30 years up to 1992. That left a gap­ing hole in the de­vel­op­ment of coaches and ath­letes. But as the coun­try re-en­tered the global sports world, there wasn’t much of a co-or­di­nated ap­proach to­ward de­vel­op­ing top tal­ent. In­stead, while the na­tional bod­ies largely floun­dered, pock­ets of suc­cess be­gan spring­ing up around the coun­try.

One of the most suc­cess­ful places was the Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria. In 2000, the univer­sity’s sports di­rec­tor, Kobus van der Walt, put to­gether a plan to build a high-per­for­mance cen­tre mod­elled largely on what he’d seen in the United States and else­where. The idea was to cre­ate a base to house, ed­u­cate and train ath­letes and pro­vide them with the best coach­ing and sup­port staff. To fi­nance the op­er­a­tion, van der Walt in­cluded a ho­tel and restau­rant so that rev­enue from the re­sort would be plowed back into the sports pro­gram. The cen­tre opened in 2002 but it got off to an un­even start. South Africa won six medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens but took just one sil­ver in 2008 in Bei­jing.

“Our coaches came back [from China] and said to us, ‘This cen­tre will never de­liver any medals, it’s a glo­ri­fied ho­tel’,” said Danie Du Toit, the cen­tre’s gen­eral man­ager. “So we changed our model and we be­came about the ath­lete and the coach.”

The changes in­cluded hir­ing more spe­cial­ized coaches, im­prov­ing the fa­cil­i­ties and de­vel­op­ing sci­en­tific, med­i­cal and re­search ex­per­tise. It also opened a pri­vate high school and be­gan scour­ing the coun­try for un­tapped po­ten­tial. Now elite ath­letes can join the pro­gram as young as 14 years old and re­main at the cen­tre through­out their univer­sity years.

To­day, the cen­tre has be­come the main source of South African sports tal­ent. Ath­letes train­ing there ac­counted for half of the all medals won at the past two Olympics. It cur­rently houses around 250 ath­letes, in­clud­ing 52 aimed specif­i­cally at the 2020 Games.

And there’s plenty of tal­ent in the pipe­line. At the re­cent world un­der-18 ath­let­ics cham­pi­onships, South Africa fin­ished first with 11 medals, in­clud­ing gold and sil­ver in the boys’ 100 me­tres and 200 me­tres as well as gold in the boys’ and girls’ 400me­tre hur­dles. “I would say our big­gest pool of tal­ent is yet to emerge,” Du Toit said.

The suc­cesses of Se­menya, 26, and van Niekerk, 25, have also helped. Du Toit said in­quiries to the cen­tre have soared since van Niekerk smashed the 400-me­tre world record last year. “There’s a be­lief sud­denly. There’s a be­lief that if you pur­sue it there is an op­por­tu­nity for you to make a ca­reer out of it. There’s a real change in the per­spec­tive,” he said.

“I def­i­nitely feel I might have con­trib­uted in in­spir­ing so much track and field ath­letes in South Africa,” van Niekerk said af­ter win­ning sil­ver in the 200 me­tres on Thurs­day. But he also ex­pressed some con­cern about the im­pa­tience among the as­pir­ing stars. “I just wish they can be a bit more pa­tient and re­spect the process as well, and re­al­ize it’s not a process that’s a walk in the park,” he said. “I think the ath­letes that are com­ing through now, I think they get it a bit more eas­ier than what we had. We had to fight to get where we got to … I think they need to ap­pre­ci­ate the po­si­tion they are in now and I think we stand a good chance to pro­duce many more world cham­pi­ons.”

There are cer­tainly plenty of chal­lenges. The sport’s fed­er­a­tion, Ath­let­ics South Africa, has been be­set with scan­dals. It sparked out­rage re­cently over the se­lec­tion process for the Lon­don world cham­pi­onships, which many ath­letes saw as ar­bi­trary and dis­or­ga­nized. Du Toit said 26 ath­letes who made the qual­i­fy­ing stan­dards were not se­lected to the 24-mem­ber team. The fed­er­a­tion de­fended its ac­tions by say­ing it wanted to send ath­letes who were ca­pa­ble of win­ning medals, not just mak­ing fi­nals.

There are also still ques­tions sur­round­ing Se­menya’s hy­per­an­dro­genism and how track’s global gov­ern­ing body, the IAAF, will han­dle the ef­fects of much higher lev­els of testos­terone nat­u­rally pro­duced by fe­male ath­letes such as her. The IAAF is to present more in­for­ma­tion next month, which could have an im­pact on Se­menya.

Ross Tucker, a sports-science con­sul­tant in Cape Town, called the sit­u­a­tion with the na­tional body “a mess” and added that the coun­try lacks a co­her­ent strat­egy to de­velop ath­letes. “You’re not see­ing a cen­tral­ized strat­egy; you’re see­ing pock­ets of in­di­vid­u­als groups,” he said from Cape Town. Of­fi­cials “talk a good game, but there’s no strate­gic plan and as a re­sult of no strate­gic plan there is no con­sis­tent in­vest­ment or fund­ing. … We have been peren­nial underachievers.”

And there’s also the ques­tion of dop­ing. In 2012, 10 track ath­letes failed drug tests and in 2014, sprinter Si­mon Ma­gakwe, the first South African to break 10 sec­onds in the 100 me­tres, was sus­pended for two years for re­fus­ing to take a test. Last year, dis­cus cham­pion Vic­tor Ho­gan failed a drug test and served a nine-month sus­pen­sion. This year, hur­dler Ti­aan Smit was hit with a four-year ban for dop­ing while dis­tance run­ner Louisa Le­ballo has been banned for eight years be­cause of dop­ing vi­o­la­tions.

Tucker said the in­frac­tions have cast a cloud over the cur­rent suc­cess. “That’s not to say that any one of these guys [in Lon­don] is dop­ing, but I don’t think you can have a com­plete dis­cus­sion about [the suc­cess] with­out rec­og­niz­ing that South Africa hasn’t ex­actly earned the trust, es­pe­cially in track and field, that it asks for,” he said.

For now though, the coun­try is cel­e­brat­ing its new-found glory and ath­letes such as gold medal­ist Manyonga, 26, are hop­ing for more.

“It’s very big, it’s my first one,” he said af­ter win­ning the long jump in Lon­don. “I want to get so much more in the bag. I want my bag to be full of medals. I’ve been wait­ing for this [all] of my life.”

There’s a be­lief sud­denly. There’s a be­lief that if you pur­sue it there is an op­por­tu­nity for you to make a ca­reer out of it. There’s a real change in the per­spec­tive.

Danie Du Toit Gen­eral man­ager of the Pre­to­ria train­ing cen­tre


Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa cel­e­brates af­ter cap­tur­ing a sil­ver medal in the 200 me­tres at the world track and field cham­pi­onships in Lon­don on Thurs­day. Van Niekerk is the world-record holder in the 400 and his coun­try is sur­pris­ing many as it sits third in the medal stand­ings.

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