Patriotism is often invoked when track and field athletes have to do duty at international championships without any sort of payment.
It is perhaps the burden the so-called Cinderella sports have to carry where country duty comes before self-interest.
Only a handful of athletes make a living out of athletics with an even smaller fraction earning close to that of their counterparts in mainstream sports like rugby, cricket, and football.
Athletes are expected to be available to compete for Athletics South Africa teams when they are selected, whether it is for the World Championships or a regional meeting.
Often athletes will only receive a small stipend, kit and the honour to represent their country as their only incentive.
Professional rugby, cricket, and football will not get out of bed for a price yet we expect our athletes to risk injury without compensation for flag and country.
This week half-lap sprinter Pieter Conradie was accused of unpatriotic behaviour when he prematurely left the World University Games in Taipei to race in the Diamond League final in Zurich.
Conradie drew the chagrin of University Sports South Africa (USSA) after they apparently paid an extra evening’s accommodation in London after the World Championships before flying him to Taipei.
While in Taiwan the young athlete found out he had earned a lane in the prestigious and lucrative Zurich final of the Diamond League meeting.
Conradie informed the team manager he would leave the Games but his request was declined. He nevertheless withdrew before his scheduled race and participated in Thursday’s Diamond League where he finished in seventh place.
“We wish to register our disappointment by such conduct of the athlete,” USSA said in a statement.
“Such conduct does not represent the values of a true patriotic South African. If USSA had been made aware of such arrangements prior to the team announcement in July 2017, a deserving student from any member university would have been afforded the opportunity to represent his/her country.”
While Conradie’s action may have lacked integrity it is perhaps a reflection of the current state of affairs in the sport.
It is the same USSA that voiced its disappointment that Wayde van Niekerk, Caster Semenya and Akani Simbine were not available for selection. Long jumper Ruswahl Samaai also declined to go to Taipei as he would have had to fly from Zurich to Taiwan and participate within days.
In a sport with a short sell-by-date athletes need to minimise the risk of injury and maximise their earning potential.
The World University Games hardly puts food on the table although the individual universities play a greater role in the development of South African athletes.
According to Athletics SA’s (ASA) Policy and Principles document the only reason for sending teams to represent the country at international competition was to “bring back honour to South Africa”.
“Honour can only be achieved through top class performances,” ASA state in the document. “So for us in athletics, honour will be reflected primarily in the number of medals we achieve at any competition.”
Perhaps ASA should practice what they preach. It is also debatable whether winning medals should be the only criteria for selecting teams.
A coach this week suggested athletes should focus less on making South African teams and instead work towards gaining access to international permit meetings where they can earn a living.
I may not agree with this notion but if ASA are not careful they could alienate the athletes through onerous selection criteria without actually creating a conducive environment for them to make a career out of the sport.