Delicate time for athletics

2009-11-07 00:00

NEWS on Athletics South Africa is powering through the media machines faster than Geraldine Pillay can sprint 100 metres. Thursday’s suspension of the president, Leonard Chuene, board and various staff members has been followed by reports that event manager Phiwe Mlangeni-Tsholetsane lined up her own tele-marketing company for a R600 000 contract to send SMS messages to promote events.

Judging by the questions and the buzz on the overheated informal network, the domino effect is eminent. It appears that many, both outside and within the sport, believe that ASA top management is something of the past. This is not true.

Firstly the suspension is pending disciplinary investigation, which means no one has been proven guilty at this stage. However, with reports that some suspended members were in the ASA office yesterday in defiance of the suspension by Sascoc (South Africa’s Olympic governing body), and a board meeting apparently scheduled for today, the initial contest will be to question Sascoc’s authority over the federation. Realistically, the earliest investigation outcome will be February, and if ASA is not prepared to accept Sascoc authority, expect the whole sport to be suspended, putting participation in the Commonwealth Games and IAAF events at risk.

Without question there are people who are hoping for a witch-hunt, but be assured this will do athletics no good. Now is the time to focus on the future and consider practical options of getting through this crisis in our sport.

Administratively, the timing could not have been worse. The negotiations with Yellow Pages for the track and field season were due to be finalised, the annual registration, licence number and fixture list process commences this month, and the technical and logistic organisation of the early 2010 events should be under way.

The sudden reduction in manpower and loss of managers are serious cause for concern and perhaps Sascoc needs to review the notion of an interim board to being an interim task team that incorporates a couple of business heavyweights, and three or four long-term, active, and experienced heads from athletics, who can explain and guide proposals and decisions on an athletic basis.

Appointing an interim board will not only take time, but is unlikely to match the progress that a credible business and professional task team can produce, particularly over the difficult holiday period that in athletics marks the end and start of a new season.

A succession plan for top ASA positions would logically have drawn on the group under suspension and investigation. This means appointments to a board at this time would have to come from provincial and council level. We have already seen the emergence of various “concerned” groupings, and if the grapevine is to be believed, the jostling for positions has begun. Not only must care be taken over the selection process, but the sport must ensure representation from all disciplines, communities and athletics interests. The dangers that the situation will turn the clock back 20 years, with conservative administrators being appointed, are real and must be protected against.

By their own admission, many council delegates have indicated that they felt intimidated to put forward their opinions or mandates at council or other structural levels. People unable to represent the views of their constituencies are not of the calibre for an interim or long-term board.

Even less qualified are those who remain silent or show support of the structure in the meetings and then outside become the main instigators of revolution.

What any sport requires, particularly in any restructuring or reappraisal, is airing of the widest diversity of opinions in an atmosphere of respect and tolerance where holding a differing view is not deemed to be a character flaw. This inevitably results in well balanced decisions. This is not a culture that exists in many of the current athletic structures, which reinforces the argument for an interim task team, prior to installation of a board that could be elected by June.

The current requirement is for caution, where analysis and assessment are followed by progression and implementation. This is not a time for politicking or witch-hunts. This can all be left to the (hopefully) separate process of disciplinary investigation.

Primary attention needs to focus on the practical administration of the sport including:

* Finalisation of Yellow Pages support or decline of the track and field sponsorship.

* 2010 performance structure: as this is Commonwealth year, the final selection rests with Sascoc. Logically the initial athletics performance and team aspects could be taken under Sascoc’s operation of excellence, allowing a continuation of the current training camps and coaches.

* Re-approaching sponsors Nedbank: given yesterday’s meeting between the ANC Youth League and top Nedbank management, an interim task team may find some reward here if the business logic can be identified.

* If the suspension is upheld, then there will be no managers in the office, which provides the lower level of staff an opportunity to bloom and show their worth in these adverse conditions.

* As the last accountant’s contract ended in October, a primary requirement is the full analysis of the books, and given the allegations of contract corruption, this will doubtless be a full forensic reconciliation.

Ray Mali, a previous Cricket South Africa president and astute negotiator and administrator, is to head up the administration of ASA, and hopefully his mandate, and that of any adopted task team, would include a review of the constitution. While this by necessity has to align itself with the IAAF, it is also clear that it should create structures and forums that avoid the alleged intimidation of council and board members, and instead promotes free speech, diversity of thought and implementation. This ethic is particularly important at council level, which in the transformation of 1994 was intended to be the highest body in athletics.

One thing is sure — carrying the sport forward and overcoming the plight currently embattling athletics is going to require a personal best performance from all involved.

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