South Africa deliver worst world championship display in Budapest

27 August 2023 - 12:13
By David Isaacson
Akani Simbine walks away from the track after being disqualified in the men's 100m semifinals at the world championships in Budapest last Sunday.
Image: Anton Geyser/Gallo Images Akani Simbine walks away from the track after being disqualified in the men's 100m semifinals at the world championships in Budapest last Sunday.

South Africa plumbed new depths at the world athletics championships in Budapest, finishing their campaign on Sunday with zero medals and just one official top-eight placing.

Its podium famine has mushroomed to an unprecedented four consecutive major meets; from the 2019 edition of this showpiece in Doha it has spread through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the Eugene 2022 championship chapter and into Hungary.

The previous worst stretch was two in a row, 1993-1995 and 2005-07.

The nation’s 2023 championships officially ended at the men’s marathon in the morning, with Tumelo Motlagale the first South African home in 51st place in 2hr 22min 14sec, well behind the 2:08:53 winning pace set by Uganda’s Victor Kiplangat.

Simon Sibeko ended 60th in 2:31:59 and Malikhaya Frans did not finish (DNF).

South Africa had only spectator status at the final track session on Sunday evening, where the programme featured events that had reaped silverware in the past, such as the women’s high-jump, men’s javelin, women’s 800m and men’s 4x400m.

The lack of gongs was not the only low point of this Hungarian horror show, but also South Africa’s position on the placings table.

The seventh spot by Wayde van Niekerk in the men’s 400m was the only official entry on World Athletics’ placings table, which measures all top-eight finishers.

The DNF by the men’s 4x100m relay team, which failed to get the baton around the track in the final, was not included by organisers. Disqualifications also don’t make the placings table.

In the 30 years since readmission in 1993, South Africa had never achieved fewer than three top-eight finishes at a single championships — on debut, 1995, 1999, 2005, 2007 and 2009.

Now there is one for the first time in 16 outings. With one point for eighth position, two for seventh and so on until eight points for first spot, South Africa was awarded just two points on the World Athletics placings table in Budapest, placing them second from bottom by Sunday morning.

The previous lowest score had been seven points in 1993, thanks to the eighth spot by long-jumper Francois Fouche, seventh in the women’s marathon by Frith van der Merwe and fifth in the men’s 800m by Hezekiel Sepeng, who is now employed at Athletics South Africa (ASA).

The highest was the 52 points and eight placings at London 2017, followed by the 38 points and nine placings at Paris 2003.

In six years South African athletics has slumped from its pinnacle to its lowest point to date.

And the sooner ASA accepts its responsibility in this disaster, the better the prospect of rescuing this sinking ship in time for the Paris Olympics next year.

For one thing, South Africa on paper had three relay medal chances in Budapest, but only the men’s 4x100m outfit got to the starting line, and that was because of their performance in Eugene last year.

The lack of proper planning by the federation meant the men’s 4x400m and the mixed-gender 4x400m outfits didn’t line up.

On top of that the men’s 4x100m outfit didn’t get sufficient practice time in the build-up to Budapest, with Shaun Maswanganyi, who started the relay, saying they had squeezed in only three practices going into the showpiece.

To their credit their 37.72sec effort in the heats on Friday ranks as one of the 11 fastest times in history, but the way their baton came to a halt in the sorry second handover between Benjamin Richardson and Clarence Munyai in the final was nothing less than frustrating.

Akani Simbine, the anchor who was left stranded on the track as his rivals raced past in the final on Saturday night, said ASA did not play its role.

“The federation does not help us, does not bring us together. We are expected to run, we are expected to be at our best, but to train together as a relay team, we don’t have camps.

“They have to figure that out. That’s the only way we can get this right.”

For Paris 2024 the World Relays in Bahamas in May will offer the most qualification spots, and ASA needs to start co-ordinating training camps with athletes before their personal season schedules are finalised.

The federation also needs to have oversight of athletes’ competition plans.

For example, Maswanganyi and Marlie Viljoen won medals at the World Student Games in China in the days before the championships, but they didn’t push out their best times in Budapest.

Was competing at both events the best decision for them and South Africa? And how many athletes should share the blame with ASA, having made choices around coaching and personnel changes that might not have been beneficial to their performances? 

If athletes are to perform at their best, it will help if ASA is on top of its game too.