Fight between Nathi Mthethwa and sports bodies loom over Tokyo team size

Sports, arts and culture minister Nathi Mthethwa.
Sports, arts and culture minister Nathi Mthethwa.
Image: Nathi Mthethwa via Twitter.

Sport minister Nathi Mthethwa wants SA to send a “never-seen-before” small team to the Tokyo Games next year‚ a stance that could bring him into conflict with several local sports bodies.

Mthethwa made his view known at the SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) special general meeting last month‚ a transcript of which was recently released.

Sports bodies making up Sascoc’s general assembly last year voted to overturn the umbrella body’s controversially tough Olympic qualifying criteria‚ which saw codes like hockey‚ boxing‚ gymnastics and fencing missing out on the Rio 2016 Games.

Mthethwa’s request flies in the face of that resolution.

“May I request Sascoc to terminate the usual acrimony around the criteria for team selection?” Mthethwa asked the general assembly‚ telling them he had been “alarmed” when the board told him the likely size of the team.

Since readmission SA teams have ranged in size from 138 competitors at Rio 2016 to 84 at Atlanta 1996.

“In my meeting with the [Sascoc] board‚ I further indicated that a modest‚ never-seen-before‚ down-sizing of the team‚ Team South Africa‚ is the only way to go.There are no two ways about it.”

But when federations voted to ease qualifying criteria last year‚ they also agreed that if Sascoc couldn’t afford to pay for a larger team‚ then the individual bodies should be allowed to pay their own ways.

Some of them know how to raise cash through raffles and jumble sales.

Mthethwa made no mention of this resolution. “I was alarmed … when we were informed by the board [of] the kind of numbers you are still looking into‚ you know‚ which even in peace [non-Covid] times [is a lot].

It’s unclear how much more a larger squad would actually cost.

But Sascoc doesn’t foot the full bill because Olympic teams are heavily subsidized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the local organising committee.

Accommodation and food at the Games is free‚ and the IOC contributes a realistic sum towards air tickets.

Sascoc had been close to landing an airline sponsor before the Covid-19 pandemic struck‚ which could help to cover personnel not covered by the IOC grant.

Then there’s the team kit‚ although Sascoc had secured an apparel sponsor for the Tokyo Olympics before the lockdown. Sascoc’s latest audited financial statements suggested the value was R15-million.

One clear cost for Sascoc’s account are per diem allowances for athletes and all other team members. At Sascoc’s current $20-a-day for a contingent of 350 athletes‚ coaches and managers — a surely unrealistic figure — this cost would be less than R2-million.

The acting president of Sascoc at the time Mthethwa met the board was Aleck Skhosana‚ who is also the president of Athletics SA which advocates tougher qualifying criteria. ASA controversially omitted 14 qualified athletes from the 2017 world championships.

Mthethwa didn’t speak about what criteria might be used to pick this small team‚ and how competitors who had legitimately qualified for the Games should be omitted.

Whether Sascoc’s general assembly accepts his request could be another story.