South African sport: Where winning doesn't matter, and we are the losers
A very South African-centric post today, apologies to our readership in the USA and the rest of the world. Feel free to read and weigh in with your opinions (just keep them tidy!), because it might be interesting to hear what you think of how sport in my country (SA) is run. To provide a little bit of background, South Africa had their worst Olympic performance since 1936 in Beijing, and also find themselves sliding rapidly down the ladder of world sport - many of our teams are now languishing outside the top 10 in Africa, which, for it's wealthiest nation, is a dismal under-performance.
In response to that decline, and other problems associated with SA sport, a big meeting was held to chart the way forward for SA sport. However, instead of developing solutions (and listening to them, because those solutions exists and have been proposed), the only thing that emerged was a political movement for getting rid of the Springbok logo of our national rugby team. If you think that's crazy, you're right. You may be reading that and thinking "what's the big deal?. It's just an emblem." Well, it gets complicated, thanks to our checkered past and the racism that surrounded the logo in years gone by. But that's not what this post is about, and my opinion on the emblem is largely irrelevant. What I would like to discuss is just why SA sport finds itself in the situation it does - the arguments about the Springbok logo point to the solution. This article first appeared on Health24.
Politics and sport
Last week South African sport was once again dragged into political controversy when the National Sports Indaba in Durban produced only one major outcome – a request for the removal of the Springbok emblem as a result of its “racist” connotations.
The Sports Indaba was supposed to contribute to clearing up some of the problems in South African sport; instead, this outcome has reignited a debate that creates a new set of problems. The real problems remain unsolved, relegated to the periphery by political posturing and non-performance-based agendas that are focused on anything but winning.
The sports indaba was called by the Minister of Sport with the intention of charting the way forward for SA sport. This was partly in response to our poor performance in Beijing, and other problems that have been affecting South African sport of late. Soccer is primary among them, but there are also issues around sponsorship across the minor sports; and the development of sport among women and disability groups was also on the agenda.
As is always the case when politics meets sport in South Africa, perhaps the biggest focus was reserved for transformation policies. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, and the appropriate strategy to address transformation is an important piece of the overall sporting puzzle. However, the Indaba was intended, I believed, to be a meeting to discuss how we might improve on-field performances through mechanisms like coaching, sports science, and yes, transformation.
It’s black and white
Pardon the expression, but winning in sport really is a black and white issue. You are either doing what you can to win, or you will lose. Sport makes little allowance for distractions from the process that aims to ensure success. Progress is measured in milliseconds, and margins for victory are so small, so hard to find, that experts and athletes will spend years searching for them. If you fail to devote 100% of your energy to joining the quest for those milliseconds, then you lose. You are either a prospective winner or a guaranteed loser.
It is against this backdrop that we have to consider South Africa’s sporting report-card in recent years.
- Consider that South Africa was once ranked inside the top 20 of world soccer, and now languishes in 85th position.
- Consider that our netball team was a world championship silver medalist in 1995 and is no longer even the best team in Africa.
- Sports where South Africa has a rich history and legacy of champions, like boxing and athletics, are now failing to produce new competitors, let alone champions.
- And then of course, there was Beijing 2008 – South Africa’s worst performance since 1936, with a solitary silver medal the product of many years of sporting neglect.
So an overall “health check” of SA sport will reveal a very dark, ominous picture – little is positive, most sports are declining and a diagnosis of “critical” or “terminal” would apply to most.
Yet a possible solution exists, driven by people who possess both the desire and the ability to improve our on-field performances. I was privileged to attend a conference in Sports Medicine in Cape Town last week, at which many of the doctors and physiotherapists associated with the SA Olympic and Paralympic teams were present. It’s immediately obvious that expertise is not the problem in South Africa – consider, for example, that when Great Britain decided to invest heavily in sports medicine for their Olympic athletes, they identified two South African doctors as world leaders, and then drafted them in to help with their efforts. South Africa possesses experts in abundance, and they are the solution for South African sport.
Unfortunately, South African sporting authorities fail to recognise this, allowing other nations to recruit our talent and intellect, and then use it against our athletes. Our own sporting codes and government instead rely on the volunteer efforts of those people who can do a job, but are not empowered to do so.
I had, for a long time, not understood why this situation has been allowed to develop, why expertise is not prioritised. But the outcomes of the Sports Indaba reveal the possible reasons – politics overrides excellence. Those in authority barely acknowledged expertise-based plans, focusing instead on fighting battles against the past, and the emblem of only one of our sports teams. Discussions around the real challenges are destined to grind to a halt under the weight of the political incentives.
The root problem
The single biggest problem we face is that the people who run SA sport are not incentivised to win. By virtue of the fact that sport separates people out into those who aim to win and those who will lose, the implication is that South African sport is tainted by losers, who do not care about winning. It's as simple as that. Those in authority are more interested in their political agendas than they are in winning. So ‘transformation’ hijacks every single discussion, every attempt to chart a path forward for SA sport. The actual solutions to on-field performance then become about as significant as a drop of water when it falls into an ocean.
When so much energy is invested into political agendas, and incentives that do not contribute to winning, we lose. This is the reason our athletes are not likely to escape from the doldrums – no one is offering the hand of high-performance support.
The role of transformation
Transformation is critical to high performance success. Why? Because sports performance is like farming: you find yourself some arable land, you plant the seeds, you water them, provide fertiliser and then hopefully, with the right conditions, you produce a good crop that year. In South Africa, we are using only 20% of our arable land. That is why transformation is vital. If we fail to access all the talent that has until now been marginalised by political, economic and social ideologies, we will never achieve our sporting potential – why pick a squad of world class athletes from only 15% of the population?
The problem, however, is the time-scale, and that's where people have missed the point. Firstly, if you force athletes into top-level sport with selection criteria based on colour and not on merit, you produce two very destructive outcomes in two very different groups of people:
The first is a sense of entitlement. You are sending a signal to certain groups of people that they are going to be supported, regardless of the effort they put in. So you don’t get the necessary work ethic, drive and competitive passion; it’s part of the reason South Africa produces so many excellent junior athletes and sports people, but so few go on to achieve senior success. Entitlement is destructive to success, because it dilutes dedication and commitment to training.
The second outcome is disillusionment in the non-selected population. South Africa cannot afford to marginalise existing talent in an attempt to find new talent, and this is what quota systems achieve. Can you imagine a coach or manager standing before a young school team and telling them that the secret to success is to be disciplined, to work hard, to train with commitment and success will be the result? Quota systems make a mockery of that advice, because the overt message is that work ethic and discipline are only part of the process.
A culture of sport
And then finally, what I believe people have missed is that sport is a culture. Australia has a great cricket team because in the 1920s, it built a culture through great players such as Bradman. Jamaica has great sprinters, because there is a culture of sprinting on the island. Kenya is a great producer of long-distance athletes thanks to the efforts of those in the 1960s who laid a platform that extends to today.
In South Africa, we have a culture of rugby – as a function of the past, mostly amongst whites. That can (and should) be changed, is changing, but not overnight. It will take at least three generations to change the culture. The first is the generation of people who have been discriminated against. It’s painfully regrettable that they have had little opportunity to achieve success in rugby.
The second generation is their children, who should be exposed to a more balanced world view, and begin to adopt the attitude of performance-based success (as opposed to quotas). I have very little doubt that if you went to a strong sporting high school today and asked the typical 16-year old what he felt about quotas, he would tell you that he would much rather achieve success based on the work he puts in. That is a sign of things changing for the better. And finally, their children's children will enter a sporting environment where the parents and grandparents are equally exposed to the culture that it takes to create sporting champions at a young age.
I must emphasise that the same principle applies to those running the sport – I have no doubt that there are still issues of marginalisation and discrimination in certain sports, and these should be policed and removed. Over time, however, the stereotypes that exist from the top and from the bottom will evolve until we reach a point where success is a function of work and talent, which is how it should be.
So transformation then, should be seen as a long-term process, because achieving sporting success is a long-term venture. It begins from the top, however, and I reiterate that South African sport has failed to win because it is led by people who are not winners. They do not prioritise excellence, they have little interest in intellect and expertise, and they are leading South African sport into an increasingly hopeless situation.
So we therefore need to make a decision – do we wish to be a nation of world-beaters, excellent sportsmen and women, who strive to find the milliseconds it takes to win? Or do we wish to allow these other, non-winning related agendas to override that pursuit. If we choose the former, we must recognise that our preoccupation with transformation is strangling our efforts to achieve a winning sporting nation.
To return to the medical health-check analogy, South African sport has a cancer, and like any cancer, it can be treated through the removal of the responsible cells. For success, that is crucial.