“Local is lekker”, or so Gideon Sam and South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc), the body tasked with governing sport in South Africa, in particular Olympics sport, would have us believe. Gideon Sam, President of Sascoc, has been very vocal since he took control as President of the body in 2009 about the fact that athletes should not have to leave South African shores to look for coaching expertise that will allow them to rise to the top of their profession.
Sam has very often said that he does not want to see athletes train in the United States or anywhere else for that matter. He believes they should have all the facilities back home that can be found in the United States, Europe or in Japan. And a glance around the facilities in South Africa that are on offer will show that if it is facilities you need, then yes, maybe you do not need to leave. The High Performance Centre in Pretoria is state of the art. In fact, every summer you will have a good number of international athletes, from track and field to swimming, basing themselves at the HPC. Likewise at the University of Stellenbosch and the HPI in Potchefstroom. So does Gideon Sam have a point? Well yes if you're after facilities he does. Here though is the problem. Does South Africa offer the athletes the kind of competition they need to be able to get to a level where they can compete with the best in the world here in South Africa?
Sam will use the examples of Cameron van der Burgh, Sunette Viljoen, Chad le Clos, LJ van Zyl and Caster Semenya as proof that you do not need to be based outside of South Africa. Go back to 1996 and 2000-2004 and the likes of Penny Heyns, Roland Schoeman, Darian Townsend, Lynden Ferns and Ryk Neethling will all tell you the opposite. They achieved because they trained and competed in the United States.
Two athletes who came out of nowhere and suddenly found themselves in Olympic finals had been training and studying in the United States. Lehann Fourie was an unknown 110m hurdler until he found himself, what many believe, controversially in the team to the London Olympics. Fourie has been based in the USA for the last 5 years. He left here as SA Junior Champion and the heir apparent to SA and Africa record holder, Shaun Bownes. He was selected to the team by qualifying as the only athlete with a B-Standard.
At the age of 25 he found himself in the Olympic semi final and most of us so called experts had felt, that was as good as it would get. Except, he stunned everyone, including himself to run his fastest time ever and shave 0.16sec off his previous best. Fourie clocked 13.28sec for the second fastest time ever by a South African and found himself in the finals at his very first Olympic Games.
Fourie is adamant that had he stayed in South Africa he would never have improved his times and would eventually have averaged out at around 13.5sec for the 110m hurdles. “I had strong competition. It was not unusual to be training and racing with the likes of David Oliver, Aries Merrit (Olympic Champion) Lui Jiang and the rest of the big names. It did two things for me, firstly I became comfortable in an environment where I was rubbing shoulders with world champions, world record holders and Olympic champions and I was not intimidated by the experience. The second thing is that I became faster. There is not the depth of competition in South Africa that would allow me to race these times. So for me, leaving South Africa to study in Nebraska was the right way to go.”
I had the privelidge of commentating on that race where Fourie surprised all and sundry, including himself, that saw him run into the Olympic final.
A few minutes later I made ready to commentate on the men's 200m semi-final in which we found yet another unknown South African. 19 year old Anoso Jobodwana had been flying under the radar until he clocked 20.30sec in April. That was in Oxford, Mississippi, USA. USA? There is that country again.
20seconds later I was able to tell the country that this unheralded, unknown 19 year old found himself in the 2012 Olympic 200m final. Like Fourie, Jobodwana thrived on the intense competition he found in America.
Cameron van der Burgh who started South Africa's Olympics medal haul, has also in the last few spent some time training in Japan until he found what worked for him was in fact back home.
Bridgette Hartley, who won Bronze in the K1 500m canoe sprint final at the Olympics has for the last 3 years spent 5 months of every year training in Hungary and competing in Europe. The difference in class between her and the rest of the country blatantly obvious.
The men's Lightweight Four rowers have in the last four years had a dedicated coaching and sports science team behind them. Roger Barrow and Jimmy Clarke, both based at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria have in the last 4 years mapped out the perfect periodisation for the team. This included a regular period in Europe on the rowing circuit. The end result? An Olympic gold medal.
So back to the question, what is better, having South African athletes train and prepare back home or have them train, prepare and compete internationally. Leaving out the whole issue of event sponsors who want to see the country's best athletes in “their” events, the simple answer to the above question is – there is no simple answer. For every athlete who performs well internationally who has prepared at home, there is an athlete who does equally well and has prepared off shore.
Sascoc has also used the example of the UK who since 1998 have over the years built up resources and facilities for their athletes and the end result was their best ever Olympic Games on home soil.
There are a number of factors we need to look at in this regard. Firstly the UK is hop, skip and a jump away from the European mainland. So competition is not far away and it is relatively easy to get there. Secondly there is the issue of the seasons. The South Africa summer, when most of our athletes are already competing, will see the rest of the world still in training. So come the start of the international season, our athletes have already been competing and will start to show fatigue come the middle of the year, unlike the rest of the world who are only finding their form at that time.
So maybe the answer is to not look at establishing facilities at home (only) but to have a long-term view (8 years as opposed to 4) and work out a plan which will best suit South African athletes. Some will do better when based away from home, others won’t. There is no hard and fast answer other than to identify which athletes will benefit under which system and to them make it possible for them to be able to tap into that system.
* Manfred Seidler is a freelance Olympic Sport Journalist who has covered the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games as a journalist and commentator for the SABC English Radio Services, SAFM and 2000fm.