South Africa emerges as new sports powerhouse with 2020 Olympics in mind

Africa has long been considered a hotbed of track and field talent with dozens of champions coming from countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia. But a new sports powerhouse is emerging from an often overlooked part of the continent: South Africa.

South Africa has taken the sports world by storm in recent years thanks to the efforts of a handful of coaches and a privately funded high-performance centre that has transformed the way athletes are identified and developed. The results have been even more remarkable considering there’s virtually no national program in the country and the governing body for athletics nearly went bankrupt a few years ago amid allegations of fraud.

South Africa’s team at the world athletics championships in London is in third place with five medals, and the country is expected to win at least one more gold medal on Sunday, when favourite Caster Semenya runs in the 800-metre final. It’s by far the team’s best showing at the championships, yet it could have been even better, considering that more than 20 athletes who qualified for London were left off the national team because of a controversial selection process.

With Jamaica’s Usain Bolt retiring, South Africa can also now claim some of the brightest sprint stars, including 400-metre world-record holder Wayde van Niekerk, who won gold and silver in London, along with Akani Simbine and Thando Roto, who have both gone well under 10 seconds in the 100 metres.

It’s not just on the track where South Africa is excelling. Sunette Viljoen is one of the best javelin throwers in the world. And the country has produced a slew of world leaders in swimming, judo, rowing and triathlon. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, South African athletes won 10 medals, their best showing in more than 60 years and an increase from six medals in 2012 and one in 2008.

“We just believe in each other and push each other and support each other,” said Luvo Manyonga, who won the men’s long jump in London last week. “We just want to show the world that South Africa is a country that has sport.”

It’s quite a turnaround considering that South Africa was banned, because of apartheid, from most international sports competitions for more than 30 years up to 1992. That left a gaping hole in the development of coaches and athletes. But as the country re-entered the global sports world, there wasn’t much of a co-ordinated approach toward developing top talent. Instead, while the national bodies largely floundered, pockets of success began springing up around the country.

One of the most successful places was the University of Pretoria. In 2000, the university’s sports director, Kobus van der Walt, put together a plan to build a high-performance centre modelled largely on what he’d seen in the United States and elsewhere. The idea was to create a base to house, educate and train athletes and provide them with the best coaching and support staff. To finance the operation, van der Walt included a hotel and restaurant so that revenue from the resort would be plowed back into the sports program. The centre opened in 2002 but it got off to an uneven start. South Africa won six medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens but took just one silver in 2008 in Beijing.

“Our coaches came back [from China] and said to us, ‘This centre will never deliver any medals, it’s a glorified hotel’,” said Danie Du Toit, the centre’s general manager. “So we changed our model and we became about the athlete and the coach.”

The changes included hiring more specialized coaches, improving the facilities and developing scientific, medical and research expertise. It also opened a private high school and began scouring the country for untapped potential. Now elite athletes can join the program as young as 14 years old and remain at the centre throughout their university years.

Today, the centre has become the main source of South African sports talent. Athletes training there accounted for half of the all medals won at the past two Olympics. It currently houses around 250 athletes, including 52 aimed specifically at the 2020 Games.

And there’s plenty of talent in the pipeline. At the recent world under-18 athletics championships, South Africa finished first with 11 medals, including gold and silver in the boys’ 100 metres and 200 metres as well as gold in the boys’ and girls’ 400-metre hurdles. “I would say our biggest pool of talent is yet to emerge,” Du Toit said.

The successes of Semenya, 26, and van Niekerk, 25, have also helped. Du Toit said inquiries to the centre have soared since van Niekerk smashed the 400-metre world record last year. “There’s a belief suddenly. There’s a belief that if you pursue it there is an opportunity for you to make a career out of it. There’s a real change in the perspective,” he said.

“I definitely feel I might have contributed in inspiring so much track and field athletes in South Africa,” van Niekerk said after winning silver in the 200 metres on Thursday. But he also expressed some concern about the impatience among the aspiring stars. “I just wish they can be a bit more patient and respect the process as well, and realize it’s not a process that’s a walk in the park,” he said. “I think the athletes that are coming through now, I think they get it a bit more easier than what we had. We had to fight to get where we got to … I think they need to appreciate the position they are in now and I think we stand a good chance to produce many more world champions.”

There are certainly plenty of challenges. The sport’s federation, Athletics South Africa, has been beset with scandals. It sparked outrage recently over the selection process for the London world championships, which many athletes saw as arbitrary and disorganized. Du Toit said 26 athletes who made the qualifying standards were not selected to the 24-member team. The federation defended its actions by saying it wanted to send athletes who were capable of winning medals, not just making finals.

There are also still questions surrounding Semenya’s hyper-androgenism and how track’s global governing body, the IAAF, will handle the effects of much higher levels of testosterone naturally produced by female athletes such as her. The IAAF is to present more information next month, which could have an impact on Semenya.

Ross Tucker, a sports-science consultant in Cape Town, called the situation with the national body “a mess” and added that the country lacks a coherent strategy to develop athletes. “You’re not seeing a centralized strategy; you’re seeing pockets of individuals groups,” he said from Cape Town. Officials “talk a good game, but there’s no strategic plan and as a result of no strategic plan there is no consistent investment or funding… We have been perennial underachievers.”

And there’s also the question of doping. In 2012, 10 track athletes failed drug tests and in 2014, sprinter Simon Magakwe, the first South African to break 10 seconds in the 100 metres, was suspended for two years for refusing to take a test. Last year, discus champion Victor Hogan failed a drug test and served a nine-month suspension. This year, hurdler Tiaan Smit was hit with a four-year ban for doping while distance runner Louisa Leballo has been banned for eight years because of doping violations.

Tucker said the infractions have cast a cloud over the current success. “That’s not to say that any one of these guys [in London] is doping, but I don’t think you can have a complete discussion about [the success] without recognizing that South Africa hasn’t exactly earned the trust, especially in track and field, that it asks for,” he said.

For now though, the country is celebrating its new-found glory and athletes such as gold medalist Manyonga, 26, are hoping for more.

“It’s very big, it’s my first one,” he said after winning the long jump in London. “I want to get so much more in the bag. I want my bag to be full of medals. I’ve been waiting for this [all] of my life.”

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