As wonderful as the World Cup is, there’s no doubt that the game has problems. Disrespecting officials is one. Diving is another. Pampered, preening egos abound.
It’s against this backdrop that two sport stories, a world removed from Russia, provided a striking counterbalance to soccer’s divas and silly theatrics.
The first, by way of Tunisia, involved the Sables, Zimbabwe’s national rugby team. Pictures filtered through on social media on Tuesday of players sleeping rough on the streets of Tunisia, the preferred option, having earlier been booked into a hovel. It was a disgraceful, heart-breaking sight given that they were representing their country in a World Cup qualifier.
The team wasn’t paid daily allowances or match fees and never had cash to stump up for visa fees at the airport. Things were a mess. The players would have gone hungry had coach Peter de Villiers not dipped into his own pocket for cold drinks and sandwiches.
It’s not a situation you could ever imagine the All Blacks or Springboks ever having to endure.
Closer to home, Comrades champion Ann Ashworth tweeted the following: “The silence emanating from my fellow elite athletes and the pro teams I’m fighting for is absolutely deafening. I will stand alone if I have. #StandUp.”
The root of Ashworth’s unhappiness lies with Athletics South Africa which she claims doesn’t support road running. She promptly declined her selection for South Africa’s 100km world championship team, a stunning rebuttal to ASA’s leadership.
She’s stood alone on the issue, presumably because her colleagues are nervous to butt heads with ASA while others desperately need the small amounts they earn. There’s little to be gained by rocking the boat if running is what puts food on your table.
Unafraid to speak up, the runner known as “Iron Lady” says that her coach, who has travelled with the SA team, spoke of how shambolic it was. Others, like former Comrades champion Gift Kelehe, mentioned being stranded at airports without money or food.
Unlike so many, Ashworth, an advocate, refuses to shut up and is unafraid of the consequences. Hers might be a voice in the dark, but she’s prepared to take a stand on behalf of athletes. Many have been stigmatised and bullied over the years. She believes in social justice and won’t be muzzled.
In his excellent blog, marathon obsessive Stuart Mann described the comical build-up to the world half marathon championships in Spain recently. ASA bungled the visa application, leaving the team with precious little time to make it to the start. The cheapest flight (with the longest layover) was booked.
Despite these impediments, Nolene Conrad ran a personal best and Stephen Mokoka ended 16th. In a triumph of galling insensitivity, ASA president Aleck Skhosana described the championship as “not exactly a good day at the office for South Africa”.
This is the same Skhosana who has faced serious allegations of fraud and gross corporate mismanagement. It’s starkly clear that Ashworth gets up the blazers’ noses and they don’t like her speaking up. She’s yet to receive a call congratulating her for winning the Comrades.
Her status has given her a platform and she’s using it to push for greater recognition for road running and indeed its many participants, who are given short shrift compared to track and field.
Thanks @ASAathletics but until you actually start doing something to assist road runners in our country with funding and other support I'm not happy to compete in SA colours #nosupport #notworking #notbeingused @colonelcoach pic.twitter.com/cDydhUJIqD
There are many such stories in SA, particularly among sports figures who come from impoverished communities. Many professional soccer players earn a pittance.
The best-paid members of Banyana Banyana earn around R5000 per match. Hekkie Budler, SA’s best boxer, has been hustling for a sponsored car. Top boxer Mzuvukile “Old Bones” Magwaca had to resort to crowd-funding to pay his medical bills after being shot in the leg in his home during a robbery three months ago. Several Cinderella sports require their athletes to hustle to find the money to travel overseas.
And so it goes
Neymar, meanwhile, is worth $140 million (R1.9 billion). Too bad he’s such a fragile flower.