The Thinking Runner

Six Awesome Athletes DON’T Equal A Sport’s Sustainable Success


South Africa finished third on the medal table and with 3 gold 1 silver and 2 bronze this was the greatest medal haul of any World Championships with the 2003 team to Paris the next best

There are celebrations amongst the team, but should the champagne be popping amongst those leading South African athletics?

There is absolutely NO QUESTION that the athletes ALL performed to their best:
Some even exceeded expectations by substantial marks, such as Lebogang Shange, whose 4th place on Sunday caught many napping (literally) including a few journos.

Then Gena Lofstrand’s passage to the semi final underlined the fact that world championships can not and should not be run on paper: NOT for medals and NOT for selection.

All athletes who came in through the ‘back door’ of IAAF invite made their point with worthy performances

Even the elite of the team performed at the highest of levels:

Both Caster Semenya and Shange set South African records and Wayde van Neiker’s achievement of two medals from 200m and 400m, rank as exceptional, particularly given the bone chilling temperatures, not to mention the additional, and unnecessary, psychologic battle created over conspiracy theories.

(Indeed if there is to be a conspiracy theory it should have been that former athlete, used this ‘Theory’ to destabilize and unsettle, both Makwala and van Neikerk such that their attempts on his double gold record would fail.)

Luvo Manyonga and Ruswahl Samaai were of course outstanding in their domination of the long jump, confidently placing first and third.

So we must be clear the following concerns are NOT about the ATHLETES of 2017, but rather about the systems, processes and production of sustainability for athletics in South Africa

The medal table approach to determining success is flawed:

Sure we won three gold medals. The way the table configures is to rank countries by the number of gold first. This means any gold medal is considered inherently better than any silver.

In total, the achievement of 6 medals was only achieved by 4 star athletes:
Wayde a silver and a Gold, Caster a bronze and a gold, and then Luvo Gold and Ruswahl bronze respectively.
So we have 4 good athletes?

What of the rest?

The only others to make their finals were Lebogang in the walk in 4th, and Akani Simbine 5th in the 100m.

However, the Placing Table gives a far better idea of any country’s potential both because it shows those who just missed out on earning medals, those who are in form, and those who are coming up.
Points are allocated for position based on 8 points for Gold medal to 1 point for 8th place.

South Africa 🇿🇦 lies 11th on the placing table (allowing for the ANA team) and that is arguably a better reflection of the current state of athletics in the country.

On the basis of finalists this actually indicates a backward step from Paris 2003 and so indicates the lack of depth and need to address the future.

In 2003 we had the 2 gold silver and bronze backed up with 1 sixth 2 seventh and 2 eighth places with 9 athletes
2017 was a total of 6 performing athletes – a 50% drop.

There are people who will say this is a negative comment and approach and why take away from the overall ‘success’ of 2017?

Its simple – coaching and athletics is all about the “performance.’

Each performance, good or bad, needs to be analyzed to identify the strength and weaknesses. It is only by doing this, that we can improve the future performance.

Look at the countries above us in the placing table.

Some such as USA and China have massive populations which make direct comparison unreasonable.
In fact many countries out perform USA in terms of athletes per capita.

But a small country such as Poland has shown what is possible
A population of around 40 million and yet they have finalists in so many events, plus their compliment of medal stars .

We have the lowest number of athletes in places 4-8 of any country in the top 15 of the placing table.

Our immediate challenge is to find and implement processes and systems to ensure we have a ‘conveyor belt-type’ sustainability in production of star athletes – not one athlete wonders in a few events.

The current group of sprinters, and long jumpers have shown this is possible through the way the athletes have worked and competed together

Event groups, provincial squads, national event coaches and the ‘provision of competitive opportunity’ are key factors to this, and is also the motivation for juniors to stay in the sport.

Yes it’s true the juniors did some excellent work in Nairobi BUT put that into perspective.
For various reasons USA UK and Russia (and others) were not present which skewed the medal table in South Africa’s favour compared to normal expectations.

Again this comment is NOT related to the individual athletes but is more a reflection on where SA athletics is.

It does however prompt a critical question:
How many of the junior champs ever go onto make it at senior level?

In a country where every rugby team is looking for a fast winger, fly half and or fullback and every scrum is seeking fast back row, the options for a fast or strong athletic junior lies in rugby not athletics, where the hurdle is placed artificially high.

Athletics comprises the basic ‘alphabet’ of skills of virtually all land-based sports. The fact is that, if we can not show these youngsters a clear pathway to the top, and to rewards of success, they will be attracted away for the enjoyment, status and a money-earning career on offer with a the major league of other sports.
No-one can blame them.

If the sport is fortunate enough that they opt to stay, the current situation does not assist the inexperienced youngsters whose first outing at worlds, Olympics or similar, are a torment of fear, nerves and ambition.

This is where the much-maligned selection criteria failed miserably.

Pieter Conradie was one example of how this step up in status impacts on performance.

His time in the 400m (46.62) was below his best but his gain in terms of experience was massive

His post race comments highlighted that entering the stadium was ‘like nothing I have experienced before – you can’t explain it to anyone who hasn’t experienced it.’
THAT is a vital comment.

He could not explain why he didn’t run faster: everything was fine but he just didn’t have the legs to match his 45.15, which was set this year.
Conradie joins hundreds of other first time World Championship athletes who need this first hand experience to be over, before being able to get into the flow of the event

Even the massively experienced Usain Bolt, talks of how he simply wants to get the first round heats out of the way in order to get flowing:
Why oh why would SA athletics leadership wish to think that we can wait until an athlete is at a higher than IAAF qualifying standard, before giving them the opportunity to get comfortable in top class competition?

Is the reverse not true? (and a better approach?
If an athlete can be given experience at world championships level as early as possible, will they not be better prepared to handle diamond 💎 league and continental champs and so perform better with and against the more competitive athletes, which will then take them to the desired ASA level?

The fact of the matter is that most, not all, people making the decision on selection criteria have never had the experience of top class, international competition, and or coaching as a background.

Many of the council members from provinces have limited international experience and some are even restricted in their track and field experience.
On this basis, it is hardly surprising, that ‘recommendations’ from office or board are often just accepted in good faith, and as good advice, without fully appreciating the impact on the athlete.

This is not to blame individuals, but an observation of one of the hangovers of the previous years of isolation.
We simply do not have the depth of international expertise, or experience that other countries.
The typical age of those in administration will generally mean that they grew up during sporting isolation, their range of experience and understanding of the requirements of top international competition can not match that of other countries’s administrations. On that basis it is easy to appreciate why many opt to accept advice and recommendations without question.

However 23 years down the line we can not be blowing smoke and celebrating the athletes success, when there is so much that the sport is lacking, and needs to be done by the policymakers.

When we are like those countries above us, with 12 and more athletes finishing in positions 4-8th, then we can release the bubbles from the bottle.

Until then there is no benefit to the sport to riding on the back of individual athletes success. What is required is to re-think the production model. Re think the support and incentives, and formulate an attractive (to athletes) way to produce the best performances.
Focus on how to produce the optimum performances, and we will soon find the athletes willing to Make it Happen!

[watch and return to this space for one approach on how to change from the current pyramid model to something that grows naturally and to produce athletic fruit]


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