Sports's fiasco

2013-06-13 00:00

SOUTH African sport is at war with itself: robust words, but attributed to none other than Gideon Sam, president of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc). He was referring to a recent meeting at which the ongoing drama within Athletics South Africa (ASA) was on the agenda. It is one of five affiliated national federations under administration, the irony being that Sascoc itself is being investigated by the Public Protector.

Athletics takes first prize for consistency as the most troubled sector of South African sport. The long presidency of Leonard Chuene ended with the disgraceful Caster Semenya affair, a saga of deceit and exploitation, and the placing of ASA under administration. Yet history repeats itself.

After ASA president James Evans was impeached in March, he obtained a court order suspending six members of the executive, including acting president Hendrik Ramaala, the former long-distance runner. Faced with a dysfunctional body, in April, Sascoc suspended the entire board, plus the financial manager, for infringing its constitution, and appointed Zola Majavu as administrator with a four-month mandate to sort out ASA’s finances and run the organisation like a business.

Its current failings are well-documented. Athletes have not been paid prize money for last year’s events, such as the national half-marathon. ASA is virtually bankrupt and owes money to the Receiver of Revenue, the pension fund, former employees, lawyers and auditors. Unsurprisingly, it lacks sponsorship. Widely described as a shambles, it is without a plan for the Rio Olympics, which is just three years away.

Here is a classic case of déjà vu: in the late nineties, coach Wilf Paish left ASA prematurely, citing administrative chaos, a lack of long-term strategy and neglect of athletes’ interests due to political squabbling.

Meanwhile, Evans unsuccessfully challenged his Sascoc suspension in the Pretoria High Court, where costs were awarded against him. Undaunted, he is appealing and has reportedly sent out a letter to the provinces, calling a special meeting for June 22, which it seems has been ignored. Majavu has tart words for what he describes as legal shenanigans that distract him from his job. He points to the wasted hours awaiting court appearances and the resources squandered on legal fees that should be going into athletics.

There is another actor in this soap opera. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is sending a delegation to South Africa and threatening to take direct control of ASA, having refused to acknowledge Majavu’s status as administrator.

It apparently regards the fatally split old board as legitimate and requires its national affiliates to be run by democratically elected bodies. There is talk of the IAAF setting up an ad hoc committee to manage affairs and call a general assembly. ASA’s international participation is on the line.

In the opinion of veteran hurdler and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Shaun Bownes, boardroom conflicts are destroying track and field athletics. At a recent meeting at Potchefstroom, the heartland of South African athletics, stands were nearly empty. He believes that clubs and provinces need to take back ownership of the sport.

He has a point. At one level, this is simply another chapter in a long-running saga of maladministration, coupled with corruption and the playing out of institutional politics to the tune of egos and ambitions. The fact that ASA is a national asset designed to nurture talent that will go on to represent the country seems persistently to be lost on those involved.

But there are much wider ramifications. It is no coincidence that both Evans and Ramaala are lawyers. Look at virtually any South African institution today and you will find advocates and attorneys in administrative positions.

No one has described the consequences better than Nick Cohen, writing recently in the Spectator: “The law is now stopping us thinking about moral questions … ‘is it legal?’ is replacing ‘is it right?’.” Decisions are based on a cynical premise: what people think they can get away with, rather than the dictates of conscience or duty. When the situation implodes, the attitude is: “Meet you in court”. And there the only winners are usually more lawyers.

These problems are replicated endlessly. But the intriguing element in the ASA scenario is the active intervention of the IAAF. It talks blithely about democracy, but as a department of globalised sport, it exercises enormous power and is answerable to no one. It has no mandate other than that granted by sponsors; in other words, international big business.

Global sports federations, using archaic rules that belong to long-gone days of amateurism, behave like small states and challenge national sovereignty.

We gave ours up before and during the 2010 Fifa World Cup, at huge financial cost, for supposed benefits that have largely failed to materialise.

Do we now need foreigners to tell us how to run our sports federations?

• letters@witness.co.za

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