Structural failure to blame

2013-06-29 00:00

THE debacle that has surrounded athletics in South Africa for the past few years can be compared to a running injury.

Running injuries are self-inflicted: they are not a result of external influences, but brought on by our own actions, and the pain and irritation is a symptom and rarely at the true cause.

Typically, it is a structural distortion which effectively results in a difference in leg length and shows up as a painful knee, or calf, or the constant niggle of plantar fasciitis.

The very public fight between a split ASA board degraded to the courtroom, sucked in Sascoc and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), and now endangers the athletes in their build-up to international performance.

While the focus has been on the litany of claims, counter-claims and courtroom antics, these are only the symptoms. The cause can be traced back to structural failure, exacerbated by strong, although possibly well intended, personalities.

The eruption of athletics was almost inevitable.

Athletics has been founded on a European club structure from the days of amateur sport in the 1960s and 1970s. The basis of decision-making for policies and implementation revolves around monthly meetings of people whose primary responsibilities in life are family, and work, but willingly give a few hours per month to athletics administration.

While relevant in the amateur era, both technology and sport have moved forward in leaps and bounds to 2013.

The chase for the pride of a trophy has become the gallop (albeit often at a lower performance level) for bucks and often mega-bucks. Performance-generated income is no longer the cream, but for many a necessity to support an extended family, and frequently a complex support team of management, coaches and medical professionals.

Even the introduction of provincial offices has done little to address the modern day challenges. Limited finances restrict the number of the normal staff complement that would be allocated for a private business concern.

Athletics is now a business on so many levels and yet it remains an optional side interest in an overly busy personal world.

There is a desperate need for the sport to be restructured in a fashion that meets the requirements, technology and challenges of both professional and amateur sport.

This can still involve policy and planning by commissions with input primarily from the clubs and amateurs, but the implementation and day-to-day workings inevitably require greater hands-on input than the current national and provincial structure allows.

The transformations in the 1990s, followed by a clear-out of previous regimes at national and provincial levels around 2009, resulted in many new administrators being “fast-tracked” into the sport without the benefit of induction or growth through the ranks.

This was both good and bad for the sport: on a positive side, the new leaderships brought minimal baggage, enthusiasm and innovative thoughts and potential.

On the counter, they operated in an environment lacking structure.

Consider the simile of a new employee in an office. They initially receive a letter of appointment providing basic terms of employment, which is backed up on their first day with additional documentation detailing the processes, protocols, roles, accountabilities and responsibilities. In short, they are guided and inducted into the specific business culture and the limits on decision-making and accountability.

As a generalisation, such documentation doesn’t exist in athletics. The reliance is on experiential induction and graduation through the ranks. Recent years have forced people to operate on their perceptions of what a post entails.

There is minimal recourse to the constitutions, which are publically acknowledged as being fatally flawed, not only in elective but also in operational processes. For over a year councils at both levels have lived with, but failed to act on, mandates for complete redrafts. The interpretation of roles is frequently exacerbated by cultural background.

The role of a king or prince differs from country to country, as does the behaviour of a president, vice president, or parliamentary member.

It can be no surprise that in a country as culturally diverse as South Africa, responsibilities and interpretations of sports leaders differ, even to the point of bitter conflict.

This does not make the people involved “bad people”: it means they have differing opinions and insufficient guidelines for a direction to follow.

The contention is that the combination of outdated structure and lack of detailed accountability has hurtled recent administrators into an inevitable head-on crash of mega proportions, which has crippled the sport of athletics.

A four-stage process could provide the solution to this debacle. Start by closing the door on the past. Cease the finger pointing and grandstanding by leaders and their supporters. Adopt the process of independent inquiry across all parties. The (split) board, Sascoc and IAAF interact, but do so on the basis of a truth and reconciliation committee. There is little to be gained from the past fights. Task the current board and structures to sort out the essential day-to-day implementation to get athletics back on track and out of crisis management.

In parallel with this, identify a mix of business and athletic enthusiasts across all athletics disciplines to evolve a proposal for a modern-day structure that can be appropriate and adjusted for the next 20 to 30 years.

With a national government directive that all sport must be administered on a district level, this must be the starting point.

Both on principle, and past (in)action, the current leadership should not undertake the latter process.

They have been in power for a year without producing tangible progress against this mandate, and as groupings, are clearly devoid of the true desire for change.

On principle, a re-structuring inevitably results in changes to appointment and elective processes, as well as a redistribution of power and responsibilities. It is a human flaw to resist change. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once remarked, “everyone wants change — it just mustn’t affect them”.

An independent but passionate business and athletics grouping will bring the innovation necessary to revamp the sport from a structure embedded in 50-year-old ideals. That proposal will still require airing, amendment and adoption by the national and provincial structures, giving everyone an input, but the basis will not be restrained by tunnel vision and baggage.

Crucially, this four-stage process must not only be adopted to strict timelines, but will also need to be driven by every athlete, coach, official, club and athletic enthusiast in the country. A unified, vocal push for change is required.

The sole mission and focus in redesigning the structure could be “to improve athletic performance”.

The structure precedes the constitution and the previously missing charter of protocols. Charting the progress of the above processes is the key to the earliest route back to Sascoc affiliation, corporate credibility and support, and improved performance on the competitive field.

Norrie Williamson is a qualified IAAF coach and technical official who has represented Scotland, Britain and South Africa as an athlete, coach and team manager in athletics and triathlon.

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