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  • Norman Brook

Athletic Success Cannot Be Left To Happenchance

I was recently invited on to Nick Bauer’s SAfm Sports Special radio show along with Athletics Coach Ian Harries. Ian is a former Zimbabwean National Athletics Coach best known for his work with Mbulaeni Mulaedzi the former World and Commonwealth Champion.

Ian like many others in Athletics in South Africa is frustrated by the nation’s lack of progress on the international stage.  He feels strongly that South African Athletics is  treading water and points to the lack of professional coaching staff, performance and talent systems, and the lack of coordinated coach education as the cause.

Having worked as Technical Director in UK Athletics before moving on to the position of CEO at British Triathlon, I was invited to reflect on UK Sport’s World Class Performance System as part of the interview.  A system that started in 1997 and resulted in Great Britain improving from 15 Olympic medals in 1996 to 65 at the London 2012 games.

Hidden in Great Britain’s success was the fact that UK Athletics, like Athletic South Africa, had failed to improve their medal winning performance in London.   Although the 6 medals that UK Athletics took in London was an improvement on the previous two Olympics, it was the same number won in 1992, 1996 and 2000.  It was an average performance with the target of 8 medals being missed.  For South Africa it was a similiar story. Athletics South Africa won 1 medal, the same as the previous games and in 1992 when they returned to Olympic competition.  The best recent medal haul for South Africa’s athletes being in 2000 where they took 3 medals. So just as in the case of UK Athletics, Athletics South Africa’s medal performance was just average.

Former international athlete and athlete’s manager, John Bicourt, wrote an interesting article looking at UK Athletics performance in depth which can be found by following this link

Comparing the broader Olympic performance of both Great Britain and South Africa, we see Great Britian having their best ever games and achieving 65 medals, 18 more medals than in 2008.

South Africa was re-admitted to the Olympic Games in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain, having last competed at the 1960 Rome Olympics. The IOC withdrew its invitation to South Africa to compete in the 1964 and 1968 games and formally withdrew South Africa’s membership of the Olympic movement in 1970 due to the country’s policy of Apartheid.  Since being re-admitted, South Africa has averaged four medals per Olympic Games since 1992 with their lowest performance being one medal in Beijing in 2008 and the highest, six medals in Athens in 2004 which was equalled in 2012 in London.

When we compare the two countries, it is clear that Great Britain improved their performance, whilst South Africa’s performance remained around the same.  In terms of population, it is difficult to find a country to use as a benchmark against which we can measure South Africa’s performance.  South Africa has major developmental challenges and priorities, such as poverty, education, health and unemployment, to invest in, that have a greater need for funding than sport.  A look at countries with similiar populations of around 50 Million, who also have other priorities, suggests that South Africa is underperforming and should be able to realise 2-3 times the Olympic medals it is currently achieving.

Going back to Athletics in South Africa and the interview with Nick Bauer, I was suprised to learn from Ian Harries, and later confirmed by others involved with Athletics South Africa, that there is no professionally driven performance, talent or coach education systems.

Sports wanting to achieve success need to find and develop the best coaches and athletes.  The UK’s World Class Performance Programme is not just about supporting those athletes that have demonstrated medal winning potential, but is also about finding and developing talent as well as finding and developing the best possible coaches.  Lizzie Armistead (24), Olympic Silver Medal in Cycling, is a good example of the notion of finding and developing talent through to medal winning performance. In 2004, the British Cycling Olympic Talent Team visited Armistead’s school and identified her, a non-cyclist, as having the potential to succeed in the sport.  They then made sure she had the support she needed to develop including access to the best coaches.

If there are any lessons for South Africa to learn from Great Britain’s success across sport, it is that the sports codes need to have in place professionally driven systems to identify and develop athletes and coaches.  From what I understand, Athletics South Africa currently lacks professionally organised elite performance and talent development programmes. It also  lacks a national coach education programme.

These are issues that Athletics South Africa will need to address if they are to create success and not simply leave it to happenchance.  The framework’s for growing success exist thanks to work conducted by the South African Sports Commission and Olympic Committee (SASCOC).  Two strategic frameworks have been developed, one addresses athlete development and the other coach development. The South African Sport for Life and Long Term Coach Development documents are the two core pillars for the South African Coaching Framework. Both documents can be found here.

The question for Athletics South Africa is how, given the resources available and geographic challenges they face, can they embrace and implement the South African Sport for Life and Long Term Coach Development frameworks?  In doing this they need to look world wide at best practice, but ultimately need to develop systems to develop talent, support medal winning performance and grow coaches, that are uniquely South African.  Systems that take into account conditions in South Africa such as resources, distance, and culture.

What they cannot afford to do is continue without such professionally driven systems in place. Otherwise they limit athletic success to the chance of someone with talent just happening to be in the right place at the right time and colliding with the right coach.  If Athletics South Africa does this they will be left behind. As South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) president Gideon Sam said after London 2012 “It is quite clear that the world is not waiting for us.”

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