Sport can unite a country. This was once more proven by the Olympics. The jubilation and congratulatory messages to our medal-winning athletes defied racial and class boundaries.
South Africans from all walks of life swelled with pride when Cameron van der Burgh and Chad le Clos scooped gold medals in swimming and James Thompson, John Smith, Matthew Brittain and Sizwe Ndlovu did the same in rowing.
The big multiracial crowd that welcomed Van der Burgh and Le Clos at OR Tambo International Airport last Thursday was again evidence of what sport can do in uniting a nation.
We were equally pleased when Le Clos won silver in the 100m butterfly and Bridgitte Hartley won bronze in the canoe sprint.
At the time of writing, SA had bagged six medals and we were standing at number 24 – out of a total of 67 participating countries – in the Olympic medal standings.
In the continent, we were occupying the top spot.
This is a great improvement on the paltry silver we got in Beijing.
I have always maintained that our country is no sporting minnow.
Recently we toasted Ernie Els’s victory on the golf course.
If we were to focus on unearthing talent, developing it and putting more resources into Olympic training and sport development in general, ours will be one of the great sporting countries in the world. But for this to happen we need the government to lead, the private sector to pump in resources, and sport administrators to put first the interests of athletes and the codes they administer.
The government has shown its commitment and in this regard I should single out Sports and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula.
Not only is he the biggest cheerleader of our athletes, but he has come up with a multimillion-rand plan to encourage mass participation in a sports programme that will ultimately break down the barriers preventing disadvantaged children from developing into world-class athletes.
Talking about the plan in Parliament early this year, Mbalula said we must follow the example of Australia and embark on a 20-year plan of focusing on school sports to drastically change the sporting landscape.
We must identify talent at an early age and nurture it. Mbalula’s commitment to our nation ultimately producing athletes with an international competitive edge is unquestionable.
This commitment is acknowledged by Emile Smith, an executive at the University of Pretoria’s High Performance Centre, which produced our gold-winning rowing team, when he says government intervention has led to more specialisation and concentration on training. Smith said this in an interview with a newspaper based in London.
The importance of training and resources if we are to do better in future Olympic Games cannot be overemphasised.
Countries such as China and the US, which were at number one and two at the Olympics at the time of writing, run impressive training programmes and commit considerable resources in preparing their athletes for the Olympics and other international competitions. The US Olympic Committee runs three major training centres, providing the best training in the finest facilities in the world.
US athletes preparing for the Olympics often live at one of the training centres to train for months or years. Other athletes visit the facilities occasionally for training camps, coaching, and physical testing.
Then there is the US Olympic Education Centre at Northern Michigan University where aspiring US Olympic athletes have an opportunity to train while receiving an education.
US Olympic Education Committee athletes can attain a high school, undergraduate, and Master’s degree at the university, while paying minimal tuition costs.
Then we wonder why the US does consistently well during the Olympics.
China does pretty much the same thing, identifying potential athletes at an early age and putting them in hostels where they are rigorously trained to win medals.
School teachers all over the country are supposed to keep an eye on students and alert government officials if they spot those who show potential in any sport. Though there have been reports of China “manufacturing athletes” and in the process treating children like robots and making them believe their destiny in life is to win a gold medal for their country, the focus is there.
We do not have the economic resources that the US boasts, neither are we inclined to the alleged ways of China, but it is not beyond us as a country to take a long-term view in the training of our athletes and to adequately fund the SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc).
As we congratulate our athletes and bask in the glory of their achievements, let us thank those corporates that sponsor Sascoc. Their corporate citizenship makes them part of Team SA.
lRay McCauley is senior pastor at Rhema Bible Church and co-chairman of National Interfaith Council of SA.