where to from here SA?

Mcelwa Nchabeleng

Mcelwa Nchabeleng

Local athletes are understandably hailed by many of South Africa's sport enthusiasts for always salvaging some pride for the country by winning medals at the Olympic Games.

Athletes who have put the country on the international athletics map in previous Olympics are Elana Meyer, Josia Thugwane, Hezekiel Sepeng, Franz Kruger, Llewellyn Herbert, Hestrie Cloete and Mbulaeni Mulaudzi.

Khotso Mokoena followed suit when he claimed silver at the recent Beijing Olympics and has since been on the lips of many South Africans for his courageous display.

Leonard Chuene, Athletics South Africa (ASA's) president, said Mokoena and other athletes who made impressive debuts at the Beijing Olympics would be put on a special programme to prepare them for London in 2012.

Chuene also revealed an ambitious four-year preparatory programme for the next Olympics.

Sowetan spoke to the forthright ASA boss this weekend, and in a wide-ranging interview he mapped the way forward for 2012.

He also revealed the reasons behind the country's downfall in Beijing and what should be done to solve the problem.

Mcelwa Nchabeleng (MN): You are obviously disappointed with the failure of our athletes to win more medals in Beijing?

Leonard Chuene (LC): Of course I'm not happy but I took comfort in the fact that Khotso Mokoena won something for the country.

MN: What do you think contributed to our failure in Beijing?

LC: There are many factors that contributed to this. I think, as a country, we are not bringing in athletes who are worth their salt to represent the country at international events like the Olympics. We tend to rely on old campaigners while there are other deserving athletes who are overlooked in rural areas. This is because of a lack of transformation in sport in this country.

We need to have a pool of athletes to choose from for Olympic qualifiers. This will be good for the sport in the country. Athletics play a crucial role at the Olympics in terms of winning medals but we don't get the recognition we deserve.

MN: Can you elaborate on your last statement?

LC: What I'm trying to point out here is that we don't think we are accorded the respect we deserve from Sascoc (South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee). If this is not the case, then why don't we have a single representative at Sascoc's board? Surprisingly, there are officials serving on this board who are from sporting codes that have no prospects of winning any medal at the Olympics. That's how the situation is at Sascoc.

MN: Who should take the blame for our disastrous display in Beijing?

LC: Of course, people will need answers from Sascoc as the custodians of Team South Africa. The team was under their control before and during the Games and they are the ones who know exactly what went wrong.

MN: Do you think the lack of sufficient funds to prepare the athletes adequately for the Olympics might also have contributed to our dismal showing?

LC: Of course, there should be enough money to prepare for a big event like the Olympics and we expected Sascoc to go all out to secure enough funding for the athletes. As ASA, we did our part for preparing our athletes for these Games. We spent a maximum of about R5million a year for the past four years to prepare our athletes. I must say the government helped a lot in enabling us to organise local training camps. We also get money from the Lotto.

MN: What are you doing as ASA to ensure that your athletes are well prepared for 2012?

LC: We are engaging countries that always succeed at the Olympics to assist us. We are taking advantage of our government's cooperation agreement with Cuba to utilise their expertise in this regard. We have already approached the government to assist us with this. Cubans are good in field events and we want to send our coaches to that country to spend some time learning their model.

They will come back and implement what we think will help us improve our standards for the next Olympics. It is not only Cuba we are targeting but also Kenya and Jamaica. I think there is a lot we can learn from our African brothers and sisters from Kenya in the middle and long distance events.

We identified a Kenyan coach about two years ago but we could not get him because he was still contracted to their federation. But we are continuing with our search and there are positive signs that we will get one sooner than expected. Jamaica has an impressive model and their federation is in charge of all athletics, starting from schools through to the elite level. They will help us a great deal to run athletics effectively at all levels. The fact that Geraldine Pillay has been there before will open more doors for other athletes.

MN:We no longer have the likes of Okkert Brits, who was a role model to many budding pole vault athletes in the country and what are you doing to address this?

LC: We are doing something to bring in more athletes from different colours to this sport. Cheyne Rayme, 18, is among the promising young pole vault athletes who we think will represent the country in London. He has represented the country at the World Junior Championships in Poland this year and we are happy with his progress so far.

There is a programme that is under way between Gauteng North and the University of Pretoria that I think will bear fruit in terms of grooming more pole vaulters. We will rope in people who have been involved in sports like pole vault and hammer throwing to promote them in the townships. It is also encouraging to see other sporting codes like fencing gaining popularity in the townships.

MN: Your parting shot?

LC: I think we can do better in London with the assistance of the government, which we need to be answerable to it. We also need the right people who are goal-driven to prepare Team SA for the next Olympic Games.