Whose medal is it anyway?

2008-08-25 00:00

When you woke this morning the Beijing Olympic flame had been extinguished. While it is not yet the time to appraise Team South Africa’s performance, the criticism over the past 10 days prompts me to offer another perspective on how we could view the performances.

The copy in many papers and on websites last Tuesday morning will, I am sure, have been similar to the following: “Team South Africa won their first medal in the long jump competition where Khotso Mokoena came second with a jump of 8,24 metres behind world champion Irving Saladina on 8,34 metres.

“There has been a general uplifting of public attitude and as LJ van Zyl said, ‘Khotso has saved the whole of Team South Africa’ ”, because the

23-year-old is seen as having brought respectability to the team and the country by putting it on the medal table. Until 7 pm (Beijing time) last Monday, the 137 athletes who make up Team South Africa were being considered worthless by many South Africans, and some authorities.

I should imagine the cartoonists have been having a field day and you can be sure certain forums will have had a full go.

So why this zero to hero story? Why do we as a country, and even as individuals, run our team (and coaches) down the way we do, but jump on their wave of success so readily?

Roland Schoeman said last week, “It’s hard enough competing as it is, without the added pressure of criticism back home”, and this is particularly true for the youngsters in the team, many of whom are really here to gain experience and get over the nerves of competing at this level.

Let’s place the reality of that medal in perspective.

Khotso jumped 8,24 metres and got silver; if he had jumped the length of a matchbox shorter he would have earned bronze and the headlines would have replaced silver with bronze. But had he jumped 50 milli-metres (a toe length) shorter he would have finished fourth with no medal, no front page and continued criticism of Team SA.

Or what of Van Zyl who gave everything he had and became the fifth-fastest 400-metre hurdler in the world? Just 0,36 seconds faster and we would be praising him.

Are we really saying Van Zyl let us (his country) down because he didn’t finish two places higher?

When you talk to the competitors it doesn’t take long before you realise just how motivated the Olympians are to do something — for themselves, their family and friends, but also in the name of their country.

Why then do we expect so much from these few people, and why are we so quick to criticise?

These are the best in the world, with our castigation and idolisation of them separated by hundredths of a second, or a couple of centimetres; a simple miss-thought or blink of an eye.

What right do we have to be derogatory about their performances, when we place the unwieldy expectations of a country upon them?

I am asking these questions because sitting here looking out over the empty track during the midday break, I am of the belief that Team SA has not let us down, especially when you compare our sporting investment with (for instance) the million pounds per team member that is invested in Britain’s athletes. As a nation of 48 million, we have other priorities and restricted budgets that ought to be focused on the real needs of our population. However, that there is much more that can be done is not in doubt and, equally, there are no easy solutions.

One thing I do know to be true is that it is considerably easier to compete in the knowledge that you have people’s support, backing and motivation than it is without it, or worse, with the antagonism of critics.

Last week Liu Xiang was forced to withdraw from the 110-metre hurdles due to an Achilles injury. Liu is the poster boy of Chinese athletics. Talk about expectations. This man carried the hopes of 1,3 billion people on his shoulders and he had to withdraw.

Throughout China the people have given him support, empathy and sympathy; he even received a personal message from the country’s president within 24 hours.

Is that how South Africa would have reacted?

Let’s be critical of a performance in the identification of how improvements can be made, but also acknowledge that it’s time we got behind our sportsmen and women and recognised the intent and honesty of their performances. Let’s encourage them to do better in their next competition.

Let’s remember it’s the athlete who earns and wins the medal and it’s only by his or her grace that we are able to share in it.

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