Caster Semenya is one of South Africa's all time best athletes. Picutre: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Hailed as the rising power in international track and field, South Africa is riding the crest of a wave thanks to the heroics of a small group of elite athletes.

World 400m record-holder Wayde van Niekerk’s name is in lights all over the globe while Caster Semenya has conquered the world but has sadly escaped the adoration of the world’s media.

Athletics journalists from across the world are fascinated by the country’s sudden rise in a sport that encapsulates run, throw, and jumping events.

Six South African athletes went into the IAAF World Championships, which kicked off on Friday in the British capital, ranked among the top 10 in their respective events.

South Africa is expected to return with its greatest medal haul at the biennial showpiece, based purely on the athletes’ 2017 form.

Investigating this anomaly, one of the first questions is whether a coordinated programme driven by the national federation is responsible for the country’s success.

The answer is an emphatic no. I have not seen any tangible proof that Athletics SA (ASA) has had an active role in the success of the current crop of international athletes.

There have been positive signs though of the federation taking a more active developmental stance as it looks to grow the base of quality coaches in the country.

Selecting teams are often offered as proof that the federation is doing its work but standards are set with some reaching them while others don’t.

It is as simple as that and to tinker with selection criteria set by the IAAF is a dangerous practice demonstrated by the recent World Championships' selections debacle.

But we would be flogging a dead horse to continue that debate and instead we need to look at the next question the world’s media are asking about South Africa’s rise.

The next and obvious question is whether South Africa has effective anti-doping measures in place to ensure we keep the cheats out of the sport.

Jamaica came under similar scrutiny when the tiny nation emerged as a sprinting superpower more than eight years ago.

The pessimism seemed at least partly justified after six Jamaican athletes tested positive for banned substances in 2013.

It was found Jamaica lacked adequate domestic doping control which resulted in an overhaul of the country’s anti-doping programme.

Three cases in the last year highlighted that South Africa is not immune to the surge of doping in athletics. Discus thrower Victor Hogan recently served out a nine-month ban after an initial two-year suspension was reduced on appeal.

This year SA 110m hurdles champion Tiaan Smit received a four-year ban after testing positive for clenbuterol, a banned anabolic agent. In the latest case South African long-distance runner Louisa Leballo received a hefty eight-year ban for a doping violation and an attempt to subvert the testing process.

The 39-year-old Leballo’s urine sample returned an adverse analytical finding, revealing the presence of the Peptide Hormone, Erythropoietin (EPO).

While these cases raise concerns about the use of banned substances in South African athletics it also suggests the underfunded SA Institute for Drug-Free Sport (SAIDS) is doing its work.

One of South Africa’s top athletes raised the concern that cases like these are severely damaging the country’s reputation. As the gaze of the world shifts our way we can ill afford to give the pessimists reason to doubt our legitimate rise on to the global stage.

The faulty timing system at the Bloemfontein leg of the ASA Speed Series would also have called South Africa’s results into question. To ensure we continue on this upward curve we need to ensure every level of the sport pulls in the same direction.

That would require competent administrators, clean athletes, and a progressive selection policy that creates a pipeline for success.


Saturday Star

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