JOHANNESBURG – South Africa returned from the 2018 Youth Olympic Games with five medals, four more than the previous edition in Nanjing 2014.
The five youngsters that won medals in Argentina over the last few weeks deserve praise, and as always, hope springs eternal that they will successfully graduate to the senior level.
Triathlete Amber Schlebusch, swimmer Michael Houlie and sprinter Luke Davids all excelled by earning gold this time.
Unfortunately, history shows that the odds are stacked against them as it has been for many promising youngsters before them.
The IAAF wisely cancelled the World Under-18 Championship, which had its final hurrah in Nairobi last year, with strategy turning towards regional events instead.
There is a high attrition rate from youth to senior level in most sports, while expectations weigh heavily on those that excelled at age-group level.
Using the inaugural 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore as a guide, only two of the athletes there made it in professional sport – four-time Olympic gold medallist Chad le Clos and ex-Blue Bulls rugby player and man-mountain Jacques du Plessis, who won the 2010 discus gold.
At the 2014 Nanjing Games, Gezelle Magerman won the country’s only medal when she raced to victory in the 400m hurdles.
While it would be unfair to judge Magerman harshly at the age of 21, she has not quite lived up to that early promise.
Only time will tell whether she can step up in the next few years, but hopefully this will be the case.
SA 400m hurdles record holder LJ van Zyl, who hung up his spikes this year, is one of the few examples of an athlete converting age-group success into a career as a senior.
He was crowned World Junior champion in 2002, and went on to win the 2006 Commonwealth Games title and earn bronze in the 2011 World Championships.
Van Zyl has done research on why these youngsters fail to live up to their potential. “One of the points I make is early specialisation. By the time these kids get to the senior level, they are so tired of running and fed up with the pressure,” Van Zyl said.
“From my era, and I competed for 17 years, only about 17 percent actually made it at senior level.
“Athletes who were good at youth and junior level, and won medals, simply didn’t step up.”
Van Zyl argues that the young prodigies often find the transition from the protective bubble at high school to the adult life too difficult to deal with.
“At the youth and junior level, you are in a school system and once you have freedom away from the bubble, you don’t think you have to work that hard,” Van Zyl said.
“I’ve been there myself, and when you get to university, you realise there are 20 LJ’s that are just as good.
“Mentally it breaks you down, because at school level you are glorified as a world champion, and then you’re never heard of again.”
Youngsters develop at different rates, and their achievements as juniors are often not a true reflection of their future potential.
They may change physiologically, while others who were not early achievers turn into late developers.
While the major age-group events may encourage a small minority, it can also discourage a greater majority not deemed good enough at an age when it should not really matter.