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Wayde van Niekerk takes strain at the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest. Picture: PATRICK SMITH/GETTY IMAGES
  Wayde van Niekerk  takes strain at the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest.  Picture: PATRICK SMITH/GETTY IMAGES

Much like the 2016 Rio Olympics 400m champion Wayde van Niekerk limped away from a career-defining touch-rugby injury a year after his golden moment ... SA athletics as a whole limped away from last week’s World Athletics Championships in Hungary.

Take nothing away from any of the individual athletes who gave their all at the Budapest event, but as a collective the numbers game is a numbing one.

Not only did not one SA athlete win a medal, but only one, the above-mentioned Van Niekerk, made it to a finals event ... and he’s still in a long-term recovery phase of that knee injury.

The World Athletics placings table lists countries who feature athletes with top eight (finals) finishes.

In 1993, shortly after readmission to the global scene, SA placed 35th.

That ranking generally showed a steady improvement (in 2003 SA were 15th and in 2011 ended 13th).

The peak on the placings table came six years ago in 2017 when the country placed 10th in the world.

Since then though, it’s been a plummet down the rankings and not one medal has been won in the three championships since 2017. SA were 20th in 2019, 33rd in 2022 and a sorry 68th in 2023.

Four-time SA 400m champion and former SA record holder Arnaud Malherbe is a man who has kept an eagle-eye on the track and field scene, albeit from a noncompetitive aspect, social soccer being his sport of choice now.

He says the sport has lost it’s “sexiness” — “We have had pretty much the same people in charge of athletics around the country for the past 30 years, with very little drive or interest in promoting the sport. There’s little or no marketing at all. We need to get the crowds back. Then we will get the sponsors and young athletes will be interested again,” Malherbe says.

SA are still relying on the likes of Van Niekerk and sprinter Akani Simbine but at 31 and 29 respectively, they can’t be relied on for much longer.

“We have some good youngsters but how many of them are true medal contenders?” says Malherbe, who believes the erosion of club and competition structure is also to blame.

“The sport has collapsed domestically. In the 1980s, ’90s and early 2000s there was a dynamic system of clubs at regional level with regular competitions. Cities such as Durban, Gqeberha, Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Bloemfontein [even Potchefstroom] had regular competitions of high standard, while Pretoria and Johannesburg were in super-league status. A Central Gauteng League race was like a SA Championships final in many events.”

Fingers have also been pointed at Athletics SA for insisting on organising everything themselves, centralising everything and frowning on provinces, clubs or districts organising their own meetings as used to be the base.

“When there were big sponsors like Engen and Absa in the ’90s it worked for a while,” says Malherbe, who also gives credit to Britain’s Andy Norman for helping arrange overseas competition opportunities for SA athletes.

Now, for the large part SA athletes are left to fend for themselves financially, and it’s only when it comes to major global events such as the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and world championships that travel and accommodation fees are covered.

George Bradley is a top coach who focuses mainly on the junior ranks and has Commonwealth Youth Games medallists as well as African senior and junior champions and World Youth and Junior Championships medallists, as well as athletes competing at World Cross-country Champs.

“The problem is that it’s all very well having fancy words, workshops and plans but there is very little execution and a distinct lack of a national all-encompassing plan.”

He gives credit to the school systems though. “Schools athletics is sound and well organised, not by the provincial and government departments, but by the schools themselves. The thing is that it is so competitive that once they’ve finished school many athletes are lost to the sport because it’s so intense during their school careers.”

He also alluded to there being very little transparency at the highest administration and management levels which then filters down to lower levels.

But he says lack of talent is not the problem. “We have an incredible amount of talent, especially out in the rural areas.

“It will take a lot of funding but we need to come up with a long-term plan when it comes to coaching and teach people to not think of next season only but 10-12 years down the line when they’ll be possibly winning medals at world level.

“It goes without saying that any plan must be developed without greed, politics, racism, cliques and favouritism. It needs to be spread right around the country and be independent with complete accountability, ring-fenced funding and absolute accountability.”

Charmaine du Toit is a coach who has been at the coalface. Her daughter, Taylon Bieldt, set a national 100m hurdles record in Europe earlier this year and both were at the world champs.

“We just have to accept that we’re far behind when it comes to support compared to other countries. At world champs, the Great Britain team’s medical team could do blood platelet counts on-site and those are the small things that make the difference.

“But I must also give credit where it’s due to SA management in Budapest from myself and Taylon’s side, they did everything within their means to help athletes.”

She says the problem lies more with the federation. “Down the years, well for almost 10 years in our case, there have been so many times where empty promises are made about looking after the athletes properly and having regular training camps but nothing came from them.”

A classic case was when the country’s highly talented 4x100m relay team once again dropped the baton in the final in 2023, with SA’s top sprinter Simbine bemoaning the fact that they don’t get enough time together to practice handovers, and so on.

“It’s not the athletes, we have so many brilliant athletes in their own right. Our sprinters had two training sessions together — other countries had relay-specific training camps,” Du Toit says.

“The difference between us and so many other countries is that of support. It’s so expensive to compete in Europe after national champs, that unless you’re on a sponsor’s contract, you simply cannot get to Europe with or without your coach,” she says.

“The federation should really look into assisting athletes get overseas to qualify.”

And of course the timing of the local track and field season doesn’t help.

“It’s totally out of sync. Our athletes have to peak for SA nationals and then try and maintain until August when the major championships are staged whereas the athletes based in Europe are spoilt for choice.”

The athletics programme at 2024’s Olympics in Paris starts on August 1, exactly 11 months away. Will SA sink or soar? Only time will tell if lessons have been learnt.

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