It’s in the 15 to 21 age group that talented girls disappear from competitive sport, says Cheryl Roberts.
Cape Town - At the African Youth Games in Gaborone, Africa’s girls and boys displayed their sports talent, competed with youthful tenacity to claim sought-after medal positions and made their respective countries proud.
South Africa unleashed a youth team which got the medals for the country to claim the title of Africa’s number one sports team. This position is expected of South African sport, given its plentiful resources and abundant sports funding, particularly for elite professional men’s sport.
It’s the talent of gold medallists and South African sports girls like Kaylynn Kloppers, 16, and Gezelle Magerman, 17, together with many other talented sports girls, which makes me ask: what potential is there for South Africa’s girls in world sport?
Both Kaylynn and Gezelle are not only raw, natural sports talent; they are exceptional participants in their sports. At the African Youth Games, they won gold medals: participating in weightlifting, Kaylynn won three gold medals and Gezelle won the girls’ 400m hurdles race.
They ascended the medals podium from the uneven starting blocks of their disadvantaged families, their talent having been recognised at grassroots and community level.
Kaylynn comes from the working-class area of Eerste River; Gezelle is from Darling.
Over the 20 years of our non-racial democracy, we have been able to celebrate much sporting achievement. But we must also lament much lost, forgotten or discarded sports talent.
Admittedly, opportunities have been, and are being created, though not enough.
Sadly, mainly because of neglect and the lack of assistance and funding, talented youths are not coming through the sports system as they should.
What will become of these two girls? Will their talent be recognised and supported by corporates so they are able to compete as professional women athletes?
Many girls have participated in sport over the past 20 years. However most of them have disappeared from sport.
The teenage and early adult years are crucial in the life of sports girls. It’s in the 15 to 21 age group that talented girls disappear from competitive sport.
Look at the lives of Kaylynn and Gezelle: Kaylynn lives with her grandmother, a pensioner who is her adoptive guardian; and Gezelle was given an opportunity to attend the well-resourced La Rochelle girls’ school in Paarl, at which her full scholarship covers fees and sports training.
Kaylynn trains in a home garage in her Eerste River community because there is no equipped weightlifting gym she can go to.
Before a working-class girl starts to achieve in sport, it’s a struggle to participate in training programmes and competitions. Adversity and scenarios of battling against the odds are common.
What happens is that the girl will participate in sport and her talent will be recognised by a teacher or a community coach who will try to assist and encourage them. Ask any community coach what a battle it is to help disadvantaged youngsters. You must ensure they are eating well, attending and performing at school, that they have tracksuits and training shoes, and transport fares to come to training.
When school is over, the girl is challenged “not to be idle”, and is under pressure to get into tertiary studies or a job. The parent, usually single or a grandparent, needs the girl to earn an income. Pressure mounts on the sports girl. How does she compete in sport when she doesn’t know how she is going to look after herself?
There’s the example of Janice Josephs, a working-class, world-class athlete in the sprints and long jump, who reached the finals of a world championship long jump event.
Then there’s rural-area raised Babalwa Ndleleni who got a medal at a Commonwealth weightlifting event. It’s a constant struggle for both women to compete as professionals with no income guaranteed and not much support to sustain them.
When the load becomes too much to bear, the athlete has to give up sport to earn some money to survive.
There is no disputing black, working-class, rural sports girls and sportswomen struggle to participate in sport and are forced to achieve against the odds, while middle-class, privileged sportswomen have it a little easier. For how much longer are we going to allow our sports girls’ talent to be deprived and discarded?