SA sport in the last two decades

2014-05-18 15:00

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It is fitting that the memory of a happy and smiling Nelson Mandela is the definitive image of South African sport in the first 20 years of democracy.

On June 24 1995, the country’s beloved late president stood on the podium at Ellis Park stadium alongside Francois Pienaar and they raised the golden trophy that signified not only South Africa’s victory in the Rugby World Cup but for a brief moment captured the essence of the free and united nation he wanted his country to be.

Mandela, in a gesture of statesmanship that only he could have pulled off, had worn a Springbok jersey with the captain’s No 6 on the back, and he beamed with pride when he presented the Webb Ellis Cup to Pienaar and his team.

Although there are times South Africans can be deeply critical and in despair about sport, the achievements of the country’s sports people since that first democratic voting day in April 1994 have been exceptional and inspirational.

And Mandela verbalised it best in the stirring speech he delivered at the first Laureus World Sports Awards, conceptualised and created by South Africans, in Monaco in 2000.

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”

Mandela – who was most fond of boxing – loved sport, revelled in being among sports people and was often the inspiring presence at the scene of great victories.

The first significant sporting moment of the free era came just 42 days after he was inaugurated as the country’s first democratically elected president, when Ernie Els won the US?Open at Oakmont Country Club in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Els, then aged 24, beat Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomerie in an 18-hole play-off to emulate Gary Player in winning the US Open, and set a standard that arguably placed golf at the forefront of all local sporting codes as the curtain of isolation dropped and our sports people metaphorically linked arms and marched into a bright future.

Els would capture another US Open as well as two British Open Championships, and his achievements not only inspired the likes of Retief Goosen (two US Opens), Trevor Immelman (US Masters), Louis Oosthuizen (British Open) and Charl Schwartzel (US Masters) to capture majors, but make him arguably the most outstanding South African sportsman of the two decades of democracy.

Els also won the World Cup of Golf twice (once with Wayne Westner and once with Goosen). With Immelman and Rory Sabbatini also claiming this trophy, it might well be contended that golf is the country’s blue riband sport.

But that is a claim that will be contested by a number of other codes – notably rugby, swimming and athletics.

Rugby can lay claim to two World Cups (1995 and 2007), Tri-Nations victories in 1998 and 2009, and three Super Rugby titles by the Bulls.

It has delivered world stars and the Springboks have consistently been ranked in the top three nations.

But many would argue rugby has not done enough to become truly representative and is therefore not deserving of being held up as the best.

The country’s swimmers and athletes, in spite of often suffering from mediocre administration and lack of sponsorship, have produced many glittering moments for us to revel in.

In swimming, Penny Heyns won two gold medals at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Roland Schoeman snatched a medal of each colour in Athens in 2004 – his gold being shared by Ryk Neethling, Lyndon Ferns and Darian Townsend in the 4x100m relay, and there were golds for Chad le Clos and Cameron van der Burgh in London in 2012.

Josiah Thugwane and Hezekiel Sepeng were the first athletes to shine under South Africa’s new flag at the Olympics in 1996 – Thugwane taking gold in the marathon and Sepeng silver in the 800m.

Caster Semenya and Mbulaeni Mulaudzi pulled off a unique double by becoming world 800m champions in 2009. Semenya also won track and field’s only medal at the London Olympics.

In rowing, Sizwe Ndlovu, John Smith, Matthew Brittain and James Thompson caused a major shock by winning gold in the men’s lightweight fours in London.

Cricket rose to No 1 in the classic form of the game, five-day tests – beating India, Australia and England on their own turf. It produced some of the game’s great figures such as arguably the greatest all-rounder of all time Jacques Kallis, a courageous captain in Graeme Smith and a supreme batsman in AB de Villiers, but unfortunately failed to deliver the silverware that would have bestowed the laurel wreath of greatness.

Sadly, though, if there is one code in which the country has not achieved the heights it should have, it is in the sport of the people – football.

The significant achievement of staging a most successful Fifa World Cup in 2010 has not been matched on the field.

After the joy of winning the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996, poor and self-centred administration, the absence of a proper development plan and the lack of a national focus has held soccer back and prevented South Africa from dominating the game on the continent and, at the very least, regularly qualifying to participate in the World Cup.

Boxing also suffered a malaise in the born-free years and whereas the country won 19 medals in the ring at the Olympic Games (six gold, four silver, nine bronze) before isolation, there have been none since.

In the professional ranks, local pugilists bagged more than 40 world titles from the alphabet soup of entities that make up the upper echelons of the sweet science.?But here too shambolic administration has been a big disappointment.

There have been a number of world champions in the freedom years, though, such as the late Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala (four-time world champion and the smallest world titleholder), Cassius “Mr Shy Guy” Baloyi – the only South African to ever win six world titles – and Vuyani “The Beast” Bungu, who defended the IBF super-bantamweight title a record 13 times.

Not a single of the last 20 years have passed without a South African fighter being crowned world champion.

There is little doubt that South African sports people have the ability, determination and dedication needed to excel at the highest level, which makes it all the more unacceptable that problems in the administration of all but a few of the codes, continues to be a major drawback.

As the third decade of the democracy kicks off, it would bode well for all officials to evoke the spirit of Nelson Mandela and remind themselves that they are servants and not masters of the sports they run.

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