Don’t rush greatness
In their first Olympics, in Barcelona in 1992, Penny Heyns came 33rd and 34th in her events. In his Olympic debut in Beijing in 2008, Cameron van der Burgh did not make it out of the semi-finals.
Ryk Neethling took fifth in the 1500m freestyle in Atlanta and Sydney, and eighth in the 400m freestyle in 2000. He didn’t make it out of the preliminary heats for the 200m freestyle.
Roland Schoeman went no further than the semi-finals of the 50m and 100m freestyle in Sydney, and the 4x100m freestyle team he was part of faltered at the first hurdle. Heyns, Van der Burgh, Neethling and Schoeman all won gold medals at the Olympics. Their first games were tough but necessary.
They needed to be dropped into the madness of an Olympics, a swim meet that is like no other, where the head is turned and the heart is overwhelmed. The medallists of the future often find that their Olympic success started four years before, when they learnt from failure and how to ride the intensity of the Games.
Michael Phelps finished fifth in his first Olympics. Mind you, he was only 15 at the time.
Sascoc’s decision to insist on strict Olympic and Paralympic qualifying times has been made with the aim of not taking any passengers to Rio. Sascoc want a return on investment for their operation excellence programme. That investment, though, should not be a short-term one, done from Games to Games. A four-year Olympic cycle is too short and does little good. Olympic cycles should be at least eight years long to find potential, develop it, allow it to immerse itself in one Games and then push it hard for a medal at the next.
The problem with Sascoc is the problem with South Africa. There is a sense of entitlement in their federations, who look to the mother body to be a never-ending source of funding.
Swimming South Africa cannot attract a sponsor for love nor, more importantly, money. That is either because corporates do not trust the administrators of SSA or because the administrators do not have the skills to sell their sport and athletes. Neethling, acting as Van der Burgh’s agent, set him up with good personal sponsors that have enabled him to train with the comfort he will be able to eat and pay his bills. Chad le Clos has done as well if not better than Van der Burgh.
Neethling was clever at marketing himself after Athens when he had his gold medal, pressing the flesh and doing the time at sponsors’ events. He worked his gold medal, a medal he may not have won had he not experienced the harsh realities of 1996 and 2000. Sascoc’s need for medals must not blind them to the fact that some athletes may need to take part in a Games to get ready for the next one.