I can just imagine the headline stories this morning in South Africa;  ‘Team South Africa won their first medal in the long jump competition where Khotso Mokoena came second with a jump of 8.24 metres behind the world champion Irving Saladina on 8.34m.’

There will be a general up-lifting of attitude and as LJ van Zyl said “Khotso has saved the whole of Team South Africa …” as the 23 year old is perceived to have brought respectability to the team and the country by putting it on the medal table. My colleague with the Afrikaans papers informs me that the headlines (in my wife’s papers) are: ‘Oplaas ‘n medalje vir Suid-Afrika’ and then the less technical ‘Eers silver, toe burger vir Khotso’
The webs, newspapers and radios proclaim … South Africa’s Khotso Mokoena won silver …. It’s Silver for South Africa
But why?
As I saw it last night it would be just as accurate to say ‘Yesterday Khotso Mokoena won a silver medal in the long jump at the Beijing Olympics clearing 8.24 metres, just ten centimetres less than World Champion Irving Saladina from Panama.’
Less than 24 hours ago the 137 athletes who make up Team South Africa were, in many of the South African publics considered view, worthless. I should imagine the cartoonists have been having a field day, and a quick breeze through web sites shows more than a few with negative comments about the performances to date.

So why this zero to hero story? Why do we as a country, and even as individuals run our team down the way we do, but jump on their wave of success so readily.
As Roland Schoeman said last week: ‘it’s hard enough competing as it is, without the added pressure of criticism back home’ and this is particularly true for the youngsters in the Team, many of whom really are here to gain (get over) the experience and nerves of competing at this level, so that as they improve they do not have to go through that learning curve when they should be focusing on competing at final and medal level.
Lets put some perspective to the reality of that medal.

Khotso jumped 8.24 metres and got silver, if he had jumped the length of a matchbox shorter he would have earned Bronze and the headlines would have replaced Silver for Bronze – the impact would otherwise been virtually the same.
But had he jumped 50mm (a toe length) shorter he would have finished fourth with no medal, no front page and a continued criticism of Team SA: right?

Or lets say the Long Jump was tonight and the 400m Hurdles last night – what do you think the headlines would have said this morning? But last night LJ van Zyl gave everything he had and became the fifth fastest 400m hurdler in the world on the night: He became the current fifth placed Olympic finalist and he remains that for four years! 0.36 seconds faster and we would be praising him! Sure there are four people, three of them American, who were faster on the night, but he if fifth out of how many? – IN THE WORLD.

Well for starters there were over 40 entries at heat level, and each of those had to meet the qualifying standard and that is just the start.
Obtusely we could argue that he is fifth out of the world’s population assuming that everyone who wants to run the 400m hurdles has done so but not made the necessary level of success to line up against LJ.
Are we really saying LJ let us (his country) down because he didn’t finish two places higher?

One of the great attractions for me ‘to make it happen’ so that I go to these and similar athletics and sporting events, is to be able to talk to, and gain knowledge, experience and an understanding from these top performers. It doesn’t take long before you realise just how motivated the guys are towards doing something – yes for themselves, but also in the name of their country: not necessarily their national body or the government but for the intangible birthright of their heritage – the very emotional texture of being South African, their family and friends.

Competitive desire does that to you, and it is displayed in their patriotism and in religious and spiritual belief and tenacity.
I have yet to find one person who makes these teams, who purposely goes out to fail – or who doesn’t try their best in relation to their level of understanding of how to prepare.
Why then do we expect so much from these few people, and why are we so quick to criticise? These are the best in the world, separated between our castigation and idolisation by hundredths of a second, or a couple of centimetres; a simple miss-thought or blink of an eye.

What right do we have to derogate their performances, when we place the unwieldy expectations of a country upon them?
How many of us go to work each day under the microscopic investigation and carrying the expectations of the country? The only comparable example I can think of would be the politicians; and world-wide we have seen how often and how many fail to meet expectations in that profession.

If these athletes were our own sons and daughters would we be so aggressively critical? Or are we more likely to be supportive and the ones finding reasons if they fail to meet their own expectations? Would we be more forgiving in the standard of expectations we set?

I am asking these questions because sitting here looking out over the empty track during the mid –day break, I am of the belief that as a nation of 48 million, with the priorities and restriction of budgets that ought to be focusing on the real needs of our population and then comparing our sporting investment with (for instance) the Million pounds per team member that is invested in Britain’s athletes, Team SA has not let us down.
We select athletes on a particular performance. Why do we feel we have the right to expect them to exceed these performances – sometimes by mamoth amounts – in a particular competition. Our expectations should be set that they will match these best selection performances, and we should be celebrating with them if the achieve better than their previous bests.

Our swimmers have taken flack for no medals – but surely if 25 swimmers, many of whom were brought as youngsters to get experience, record 24 African records they have achieved more than we have a right to expect and we should be happy for them!

That there is much more that can be done is not in doubt or question. Equally it needs recognising that solutions are not easy.
The one thing I know to be true – It is a dam site easier to compete in the knowledge that you have the support, backing and motivation of your family than it is without that, or worse, with the antagonism of critics.
Of course there is a need to separate the competitor from the tourist; those who look to learn and those who will never change or don’t want to learn. We need to select those who bloom through their constant drive to become better.
So by all means lets be critical of a performance in the identification of how improvements can be made, but it’s time we got behind our sportsmen and women and recognise the intent and honestly of their performance, and lets encourage them to do better in their next competition.  Let’s remember it’s the athlete who earns and wins the medal and it’s only by his or her grace that we are able to share in it.

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