Like a fish to water: Minke Janse van Rensburg. Picture: Hennie Janse van Rensburg
Like a fish to water: Minke Janse van Rensburg. Picture: Hennie Janse van Rensburg

When Minke Janse van Rensburg’s face emerges from the water as she swims, her determination to win gold on the world stage is plain to see. The 15-year-old George schoolgirl has had a meteoric career, from swimming in her very first gala two years ago to setting a junior world 50m freestyle record at the Down syndrome world swimming championships in Canada mere months later.

But despite having broken many more world, African and national records, and qualifying for the next round of the championships in Turkey at the end of this month, Janse van Rensburg will not be able to attend that event. Neither will any of SA’s other world-class intellectually impaired athletes.

The problem is a funding crisis at the SA Sports Association for Intellectually Impaired Athletes (Sasa-II) that stretches back to at least 2014. The national body represents mostly school-going Down syndrome, autistic and similar athletes.

Sasa-II president Dikgwadi Mohlabi, who assumed his seat in September 2018, tells the FM a probe he conducted revealed no misappropriated or misallocated funds.

Instead, it seems dwindling sponsorship and poor financial planning has sunk the hopes of Janse van Rensburg and others.

In 2014, Mohlabi says, an SA team placed second behind Saudi Arabia in the football world championships of the International Sports Federation for Persons with Intellectual Disability (Inas) in Brazil.

Sasa-II, a public benefit organisation much dependent on funding from the National Lottery and the department of sports & recreation, had kitted out and flown its players to Brazil — but found itself saddled with a huge bill for accommodation, food and local transport.

Despite the organising body’s financial woes, SA’s athletes continued to shine on the global stage. In Italy in 2016, at the Trisome Games — the premier sporting event for Down syndrome athletes — SA’s 41-strong team set eight world records and won 50 medals: 15 golds, 17 silvers, and 18 bronzes.

We are extremely disappointed that SA athletes continue to miss international competitions
Nick Parr

Notable achievements included Charles Mailula’s world record gold for the men’s 1,500m, Hannes-Walt de Klerk’s world record gold 800m, Melanie Barnard’s world record gold for shot put — which she repeated for discus — and Pieter Bell’s world record gold 1,500m freestyle swimming medal. The athletes also shone in disciplines including javelin, the women’s 1,600m athletics relay, and long jump.

But behind the scenes, Mohlabi says, the Italian local organising committee was "threatening to stop delivering our athletes to the venues because of money problems".

Thereafter, it seems the national body’s woes simply snowballed.

In 2018, the SA Football Association had been pencilled in to sponsor the Sasa-II team’s airfare to Karlstad, Sweden, for the Inas football world championships. But the team had to withdraw at the last moment after the money failed to materialise.

The result, Mohlabi says, was that the Swedish Parasports Federation, as host of the event, found itself about R400,000 out of pocket due to cancelled hotel, meal and transport bookings. It successfully appealed to Inas to suspend SA’s participation in international events until the money has been reimbursed.

This means SA’s athletes were unable to compete in the Inas Global Games — the "Olympics" for intellectually impaired athletes — in Brisbane, Australia, last October. And Sasa-II’s funding crisis will also prevent SA from competing in the next Trisome Games, from March 31 to April 7 in Antalya, Turkey — even though Trisome is not covered by the Inas (now named Virtus) ban.

Barbara Higgins, the CEO of Trisome’s partner, the Down Syndrome International Swimming Organisation, tells the FM: "It’s just such a sad state of affairs, but our hands are tied." This is because the swimming organisation is not empowered to intervene in the workings of affiliated national outfits.

What it means:

In 2016, SA's Trisome Games team won 50 medals and set eight world records. This year SA won't attend the event due to a funding crisis

Mohlabi sighs. He explains that the sports department gave Sasa-II R560,000 a year to cover all its costs. Given that the body has "invoices close to R1m", his council decided instead to pull out of all international events for three years to ensure it can at least host the national competition, scheduled for March and September.

Virtus executive director Nick Parr says: "We are extremely disappointed that SA athletes continue to miss international competitions. We urge the board and leadership of Sasa-II to engage and work with all parties to solve the situation as quickly as possible and hope that the interests of athletes can be put foremost."

Ina Fowler, Sasa-II’s national swimming co-ordinator, is similarly concerned by SA’s isolation. The problem with long gaps in international participation, she explains, is that some athletes pass their prime and are thus unable to compete further. Fortunately, she says, while mainstream athletes peak at between about 18 and 25 years, Down syndrome athletes peak at between 24 and 30.

That will give Janse van Rensburg time to complete the arc of her remarkable sporting career.

Yet, as her father, Hennie, tells the FM, though "standards are very high" at international events and the athletes truly competitive, "the fact that the Trisome Games [are] not on is not a crisis to Minke — it is more so for us as parents, who notice how hard she works".

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