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Friday, August 10, 2007

SA athletics on trial: The verdict is...

In response to our last two athletics posts on Sipho Ngomane and Alistair Cragg, we’ve received some quite good questions and comments from people who, like us, share the frustration at the state of the sport in South Africa. So this post is a response and comment, which we thought would be good as a stand-alone article.

Are the Ultras to Blame?

The first comment that we received is that the Ultra-marathon culture in SA (focus heavily on Two Oceans 56km and Comrades 90km) is to blame. And that politics and bad admin are also culprits. Agreed on all three, but one must be cautious to criticize the ultra-culture, because ultimately, it’s still a running culture, and that will bring young athletes into the sport. The key is managing those athletes and the ultra-situation better.

I think that Comrades and Oceans are the unfortunate "vehicle" for the greedy agents and coaches to exploit athletes. They are not directly to blame – in fact, as mentioned above, I’m quite sure that many young (under 12) runners take up the sport because they see elders doing these events. So they do help. But managing the people around them is what is missing. In my view, the biggest blame must be placed on the coaches and administrators. An example of this, I think that the structures around the Harmony running club, with Nick Bester on management, is doing huge damage to SA’s running future. I don’t wish to single one group out, but it’s quite clear that in the last 3 years, they’ve found a niche and been riding a wave of success at the expense of the athlete’s best interests (physiologically speaking). That is not to say they are unique, there are others, but it is an important illustration of the problem. Bester is the head guy at Harmony and he basically hunts down the likes of Ngomane and turns them into Ultra runners. I don't even need to mention the fact that the Harmony club had one of the highest positive drug test rates in the world about two years ago - how do dirt-poor African runners, who could not even afford shoes, suddenly begin to afford expensive steroids? One possible answer is that they are given to them by managers and agents who are perhaps making 15 to 20% of the athlete's earnings.

I would love to know how the money flows once it is in the athlete's hands after a big race with a fat payout. A classic model says that the agent takes 10 to 20%, so conservatively, go at about 10%. So at a race like Comrades, where the top 10 are probably sharing in prize money of about R500 000, the agent is probably making R50 000 off the men and women, each. Do that at three or four events per year, and you’ve got a pretty good financial reason to take a 10km runner into the ultra distances. This creates a perverse incentive to exploit talent, and ultimately drives the situation we see today, and which was described in that post on Sipho Ngomane.

The biggest contributor off all then, is that the coaches and clubs don’t look after the interests of the athlete as they should. The only reason this can happen (which makes it doubly shameful) is that South Africa has so much distance running talent, that when at athlete is burned out and stale aged 26, he’s easily replaced by the next one! So the wealth of talent facilitates its wastage!

Administrator neglect

So that's the first problem. The second is incompetence and neglect on the part of administrators and coaches, which you've touched on. Given that situation, the sports administrators could still step in and stop it from happening, by beating the vultures to the punch and getting those talented athletes first. But they don't, for whatever reason - ignorance, laziness, who knows? I think they are not incentivized correctly. I recall that recently, our SA junior team of about 50 athletes went to world junior championships and returned with one single medal and only about 4 finallists. And the CEO of Athletics South Africa said it was a successful trip! In my opinion, people should have faced investigations and salary penalties, it was so poor. But the end result for the poor athlete on the ground is that he has little alternative than to race marathons, because that is where the administrators are putting the sponsor’s money. And the socio-economic situation in SA drives them to compete as a means for survival.

Now the problem is that the calendar for racing in SA is year-round. This means that a decent athlete can basically run every weekend, or every second week. What this prevents is a period of dedicated training, where the athlete and coach can systematically build up and work at specific aspects of running. One of the key advantages that Alistair Cragg had by leaving was that he entered into a competition structure that facilitates proper training – periods of base, periods of high quality, periods of taper and periods of racing. In South Africa, none of this happens, because there’s no formalized structure for racing. The administrators could fix this, by creating a 5km and 10km season that is NOT year round, but spread over perhaps 2 or 3 months only.

What about the sponsors?

When talking about sponsors, you have to make a distinction. There are event sponsors, and there are club sponsors. Event sponsors put up the money for Comrades, Two Oceans and so on. I don't really blame these sponsors, because SA is a market that is so heavily dominated by ultras. And the sponsor's main interest is in awareness and exposure, so naturally, they will go for the comrades, the Oceans and the marathons. The 5km and 10km races are far less attractive - the cost of putting on a 5km or 10km race is also disproportionately more than a marathon, because you still have certain 'fixed costs' that can't be scaled down for the shorter event (advertising, salaries, venue hire etc.). So the shorter event, lasting maybe 2 hours, might still cost 70% of an event lasting 12 hours. And then added to this, the revenue you make off a 10km event is much lower – smaller fields, smaller entry fees, less time on TV etc. So it's disproportionately expensive as a result. And of course, the "value" of the competitors is so much higher in Two Oceans and Comrades - 10km races, which cost maybe R10 to R20 to enter, will attract a different population who aren't as "lucrative" as the guys who spend maybe R3000 on Comrades (travel, entry, equipment, accommodation etc.). So from a business point of view, I can understand the desire to put the money into marathons and longer.

The club sponsors, that’s another story. Here, a sponsor, or group, will fund a specific club, with funding directly linked to performance (sometimes the sponsor even CREATES the club). In other words, there is immediate pressure on the club to produce top ten results, preferably victories. Now you have this situation where money is attracting athletes, and then driving them to perform. That’s not necessarily bad, but as we’ve seen above, can lead to problems. And in South Africa, whether it’s wilful or ignorant, your typical sponsor does NOT say “this runner is an investment for us and you are running him dry. . .". In fact, they encourage this, because it provides them with returns. Short term, yes, but they only see the return. So the club sponsors are certainly culpable in this process, they provide the financial muscle to actually entice the athletes and then hold them to ransom.

The solution

It would be great if someone took the situation by the horns and created some sort of structure where athletes could live without racing. And block the Harmony Golds of the world from getting guys to race when they should not. This would take administrators with a vision, sponsors with some courage and foresight, not to mention patience, and then professionals to run the system. That would be fantastic, and perhaps some day it will happen. Until then, the solution is to educate everyone on the ground. If all the clubs had a few guys who knew this kind of thing and knew where to get the right advice and help, then those talented athletes would stand a better chance of getting good advice. It's not the answer, I'll admit that, but imagine just 50 more educated fellow runners, giving the right guidance to those who have the talent they might not have! That's possibly 250 more athletes per year who'd receive some good advice, and who knows what could come of it? But ultimately, funding has to step in and pull these guys away from the Ultras, at least until later. If anyone with a couple million to spend reads this, email us!!!! Seriously, though, it needs vision and foresight and money and I’m quite sure we’d return to competitive athletics very easily.