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  • Norman Brook

What must South Africa’s approach be for developing athletes for the 2020 Olympic Games?

This presentation was delivered at Athletic South Africa’s National Coaches Symposium in Bloemfontein, South Africa on the 6/7 October 2016.


The 2020 Olympic Games will be held in Tokyo, Japan, from the 24th July to the 9th August. There are 1385 days left until these games begin.  To answer the question “What must South Africa’s approach be for developing athletes for the 2020 Olympic Games?”, South Africa needs to:

  1. Celebrate the success of RIO 2016 and create a virtuous circle that learns from that success and aims to improve on that success in Tokyo 2020;

  2. Support those athletes who have a realistic chance and are committed to winning medals in Tokyo 2020;

  3. Seek continuous improvement by challenging and improving performance in all areas of preparation;

  4. Remember that Tokyo 2020 is followed by Budapest/Los Angeles/Paris 2024 and somewhere else in 2028.

Create that Virtuous Circle

Through the medal winning performances of Caster Semenya, Sunette Viljoen, Wayde van Niekerk, and Luvo Manyonga, South African athletics achieved its best ever medal tally for the sport of athletics at an Olympic Games. The previous best being three medals.  This is an outstanding performance and one that should be celebrated. It is also a potential platform on which to build further success by using this achievement to create a virtuous circle, a beneficial cycle of events or incidents, each having a positive effect on the next, where success begets success.

One good sign that links the celebration of success in Rio to support for Tokyo 2020 was the Minister of Sport, Fikile Mbalula’s statement at the recent SASCOC Annual General Meeting:

“We need to work harder and invest in sport in a similar fashion to Britain to get the best results and many medals. It’s time to have a budget focused on Olympics, every year we should get money for Olympics. I am going to advocate and motivate to the government that we get a budget for Olympics over and above the money we receive for development of sports and NFs (National Federations).”

Great Britain started to seriously invest in Olympic medals post the 1996 Olympics where the nation finished 36th in the medal table winning only 15 medals of which there was only 1 Gold. In 2016, they won 67 medals, 2 more than at the 2012 London Olympics becoming the first host nation to better their medal haul in a subsequent Games.


South Africa and Great Britain Olympic Medals in Athletics

Great Britain with the 5th strongest economy in the world spent £350 Million on winning medals over the 2013/2017 funding period resulting in an average cost of each of the 67 medals won being £5.22 Million.  South Africa has 40th strongest economy in the word, but is only a medium development country on the human development index and has the highest levels of inequality in the world. South Africa has pressing development needs that are not faced in more highly developed countries such as Great Britain or Australia.

Despite high levels of investment, Great Britain finished below South Africa on the athletics medal table, although they won 7 medals to South Africa’s 4. South Africa placed ahead of Great Britain by merit of the quality of medals won.

Australia finished 10th on the medal table in Rio with 27 medals in total investing AUD 330 Million over the four-year Olympic cycle and with the average cost of each medal being AUD 12.2 Million. Australia only won two athletics medals in Rio, half the number that South Africa won.

So here we have South Africa being more successful in athletics at the Olympic Games than countries with much higher levels of funding. South African athletes received support through Operation Excellence and had access to performance support services and facilities through a network of High Performance Centres, but the scale of investment was considerably lower than countries like Great Britain and Australia.

Clearly there is more to achieving medal winning success at an Olympic Games than simply throwing money at the challenge.  That said it is becoming increasingly difficult for athletes to train to produce an Olympic podium performance without becoming full time athletes. The hours required for training, eating and recovering require a full time commitment and this means that potential Olympic podium athletes need to have their living and athletics costs covered somehow. The Minister’s desire to find more money to invest in medal winning performances is therefore welcome.

Support Committed Athletes

Increased funding of athletes through programmes like Operation Excellence should not mean that more athletes will be funded, but rather that more funding and support will be directed towards those athletes identified as having a realistic chance of winning Olympic medals in 2020. In a country where resources are scarce we need to focus funding on the clear target of winning medals in 2020. Programmes like Operation Excellence should be designed to help athletes win medals, they are not about assisting athletes to qualify and simply participate.  Athletes on the way up who have not yet demonstrated that they have Olympic medal winning potential should be supported by other parts of the performance pathway.

Those athletes who will win medals for South Africa in 2020 are almost certainly already known in the sport.  Caster Semenya was a medal winner in London 2012, Sunette Viljoen finished one place outside the medals in London 2012, Wayde van Niekerk whose breakthrough year was in 2014, was a junior South African international in 2012, Luvo Manyonga was a potential medallist in 2012 having been World Junior Champion in 2010 and placed fifth in the World Championships 2011. It should therefore not be too difficult to identify which athletes might have the potential to win medals in Tokyo and to immediately start to support those committed to getting on the Olympic Podium.

Three days before the Games of the XXXI Olympiad opened in Rio, Brazil, the legendary Australian swimming coach, Forbes Carlile sadly passed away at the age of 93 years. He coached many notable Olympic swimmers including Shane Gould who as a 15-year-old won three gold medals, a silver medal and a bronze at the 1972 Summer Olympics and in that same year held world records simultaneously in the 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1500 metres freestyle and the 200m individual medley.

Forbes together with his wife Ursula, and assistant coach, Tom Green, ran a performance swimming centre in Ryde, Sydney, where the following sign hung at the entrance some 50 years ago.


Legendary Australian Swimming Coach, Forbes Carlile

It reads “Our object is not to not being the intent to produce A Champion, but rather to provide an atmosphere where champions are inevitable.”  Forbes modified this quote over time to “Our aim is not to produce champions, but to create an environment where champions are inevitable.”

What was true over 50 years ago is true today and the philosophy of creating the right atmosphere, environment or climate that makes champions inevitable still applies in high performance programmes today.

One of the coaching models, I like, was developed by Olympic Gold Medallist, David Hemery, Olympic Field Hockey Coach, David Whitaker and Sir John Whitmore, a former motor racing driver. It is called the GROW model. The GROW acronym standing for Goal, Reality, Options, Will.

So if we apply the GROW model to the task of developing South Africa’s for the 2020 Olympic what would it look like?

Goal: If South African athletics is to create a virtuous circle and improve on the outstanding four medals won in 2016, they will need to set a target of at least 5 medals in 2020.

Reality: If the goal is to win 5 medals in 2020 we need to quickly assess if that is realistic?  Does South African athletics currently have the athletes in the system that can, with the right support and development, win five medals in 2020? What is it going to take for the athletes to win medals in 2020? Where are South Africa’s athletes today in relation to what it will take and is the gap bridgeable?

In assessing whether we have the athletes currently in South African athletics to win medals in Tokyo 2020, we have to consider all medals including the relays. Japan won the silver medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in the 4 x 100m relay with a pool of sprinters that South Africa could better on individual performances.  Japan’s athletes and federation have been committed to success in the relays for a number of years. If South Africa assesses that it has a pool of sprinters capable if committed to winning an Olympic medal, then the athletes and federation must include this in their strategy.

Options: Having identified the potential podium athletes for 2020, ASA and SASCOC need to develop a strategy with the athletes and their coaches to ensure they can achieve the goal. They need ask what the athletes need in order to bridge the gap from where they are today and where they need to be in 2020. They need to consider what are the best options of providing support?

Will: Most importantly South Africa needs to know that the athletes identified as potential Olympic podium athletes are 100% committed to winning medals in 2020? That they will not compromise their preparations to win an Olympic medal. We also need to know that the athlete’s personal coach and performance service providers are also committed to that goal. Finally, we need to know that other strategic funders and stakeholders are also focused on Olympic medal winning goal?

Athletes, coaches, support personnel, strategic funders and stakeholders can only be aligned to the Olympic goal if they are speaking to each other.  Part of the success of Great Britain’s approach has been the gradual alignment of commitment of their athletes, coaches, support personnel, National Sports Federations, National Olympic Committee and Government towards the goal of winning Olympic and Paralympic medals has contributed to the programme’s success.


Is everyone focused on Olympic Medal Winning Performance

There is a big difference from athletes being motivated to compete at the Olympic Games to athletes being 100% committed to winning an Olympic Medal.  This was true for the sport of triathlon which became an Olympic sport in 2000 and where Great Britain had medal winning potential that was not realised until 2012. Prior to gaining its Olympic status, the sport produced a generation of “travel the world journeymen” type athletes. This was an approach that clashed with the focused Olympic medal winning approach. Triathletes wanted the world class funding, but also wanted to continue the journeyman approach. Being a young new sport, there was also a lack of experienced performance coaches with the skills to persuade triathletes to commit 100% to the Olympic goals.

It was only when the new generation of young triathletes emerged from the sports talent programmes and the experienced Olympic athletics coach, Malcolm Brown, came on board to lead the triathletes that Olympic medal winning performance emerged. In Rio, British triathletes lead by Malcolm took Gold, Silver, Bronze and a fourth place and five of the six triathletes on the team came from the same training centre he leads in the City of Leeds.

The Leeds triathlon experience is very much an athlete centred approach with the triathletes very much involved in decision making processes. Malcolm Brown leads the programme supported by an assistant coach, sports science and sports medicine specialists. The training centre is low cost and is supported by the university the National Federation and UK Sport.

The importance of an athlete centred approach to success in high performance programmes cannot be stressed enough.   Cycling, Great Britain’s most successful Olympic medal winning sport make this clear through a set of expectations they describe through the acronym CORE which stands for Commitment, Ownership, Responsibility, and Excellence.

Commitment:    Athletes are expected to be 100% committed to the goal of winning Olympic medals.

Ownership:        Athletes are expected to take ownership of their programme.

Athletes generally do not like to be told what to do, they respond best when they are consulted and involved in decision making. Directive coaching styles where the coach makes all the decisions and has total control of the training programme are not appropriate at this level of performance. Athletes should be expected to have an opinion and be made to feel they can voice their opinion.

Responsibility: Athletes are expected to take responsibility and be accountable for themselves.

Athletes should know what is expected and is not expected of them and conduct themselves accordingly.

Excellence:         Athletes should be committed to achieving excellence.

Athletes should seek to do everything they can in their preparations to achieve excellence. They should be committed to a process of continuous improvement.

It is this pursuit of continuous improvement and excellence that has led to the “Aggregation of Marginal Gains” concept. Initially, there are big things you can do as an athlete to improve your performance, but over time it becomes the small things that create the competitive advantage.  The difference in performance terms between winning an Olympic Gold medal and finishing out of the medals can be very small. In this case every marginal gain that the athlete can make the difference between making the podium or missing it. Adopting the concept of aggregating marginal gains means adopting a process of continuous improvement where athletes, coaches and performance support personnel all seek to pursue excellence in everything they do, looking at all factors that impact the athlete. These include factors that go beyond the physical, mental, technical and tactical preparation of the athlete. A good example is how the British cycling team and staff were all taught how to wash their hands properly in order to cut down the possibility of infections being transferred and to keep the cyclists in good health for the competition.

Challenge & Improve

As I was about leave my role of Chief Executive Officer of the British Triathlon Federation, I took part in the first stage of a review process of our World Class Performance programme called Mission 2012.   In order to create the right climate, environment or atmosphere to succeed, UK Sport had developed the pioneering review process which tracks, checks and challenges each funded sport on their Olympic and Paralympic journey.

The Mission review process was originally developed for London 2012 and then was improved for Rio 2016. It ensures continuous improvement and has improved Great Britain’s ability to identify issues and find solutions before they have a negative impact on the athletes’ performances.

UK Sport works with each National Sports Federation’s performance team to assess and reflect on areas of strength and weakness in their Olympic programme. Each sport analyses elements of their athlete development and support programmes in three key areas;

  1. Athletes – performances, development profiles, well-being, health, & commitment

  2. System – the staff, structures, facilities, processes, knowledge and expertise

  3. Climate – the culture, feel and day-to-day function experienced by athletes and staff

Progress is measured six monthly using a traffic light system and action plans are developed on a plan-do-review basis to address issues identified in the review. The review process identifies areas where the sport is underperforming and challenges the sport to address these areas.

Looking Beyond 2020

We know that potential medallists for 2020 are almost certainly already participating in the sport, but where are the future generations of medal winners for 2024 and 2028. The recent Eminent Persons Group on Transformation in Sport’s status report highlights that large sections of the population under-18 years are not able to access traditional school and club sport. The report states that there is an “inadequate focus on the 84% under-18 South African Black African segment compared to the focus on the 16% White, Indian or Coloured segment.”

Traditional thinking is that there is a relationship between participation and performance. The wider the base of participation the higher the level of performance. This is of course not true. You can have high levels of performance even if there is a small participation base. What is true is that if you are to maximise performance programmes you need to be able to reach down and discover talent. This has traditionally been achieved in sports like athletics through school and club athletics.

British Triathlon has had a strong talent identification and development programme for a number of years. This despite the sport being dominated by individuals, there being no triathlon activity in schools, and a small a small junior club base.  Against this background British Triathlon had to adopt more targeted talent programming finding young people in different contexts who could swim and run and pulling them into area talent centres.

If athletics in South Africa is to reach wider than it currently does it probably need to develop a talent identification programme and performance pathway that is not solely dependent on the traditional school and club sport models.


The 2020 Olympic Games will be held in Tokyo, Japan, from the 24th July to the 9th August. There are 1385 days left until these games begin.

In summary, what must South Africa’s approach be for developing athletes for the 2020 Olympics?

  1. Celebrate the success of RIO 2016 and use this success to drive even greater success in Tokyo 2020;

  2. Set a realistic but challenging medal target for 2020;

  3. Focus on those athletes including relay squads who are realistic medal potential for 2020;

  4. Conduct a performance analysis of where potential medallists are today and where they need to be in 2020. Form a strategy to bridge the gap;

  5. Ensure clarity over the roles, responsibilities and boundaries of the various stakeholders;

  6. Ensure athletes, personal coaches and other stakeholders are connected and committed to winning Olympic medals in 2020;

  7. Invest in the personal living and sports costs of the identified podium athletes;

  8. Invest in the development of personal coaches and performance support providers;

  9. Create a high performance environment and culture around the podium athletes;

  10. Seek continuous improvement in all aspects of preparation.


  1. Don’t take your eye off developing the next generation athletes, coaches and support personnel for 2024 and beyond.


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