What’s the point of having a policy that works against Team SA?

Team SA
Team SA

There is a saying in sport that people only remember the winners. However, when it comes to selecting our Olympic team, the policy espoused by the SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) gives a whole new meaning to that axiom.

The Africa Women’s Sevens Championship, held in Tunisia last Sunday, serves as a sad reminder of what Sascoc’s Olympic team selection policy can do to spoil a good party.

The Springbok Women’s Rugby Sevens squad, known as the Imbokodo, were crowned champions of Africa last weekend, yet their feat counted for nought as the committee’s stringent selection rules meant that, while the team qualified for the 2020 World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series, they had forfeited their berth at the 2020 Olympic Games, set to take place in Tokyo, Japan.

Ironically, most people are likely to remember runners-up Kenya as the East African side gladly accepted their golden ticket to the Olympics – deservedly so, from a competition that served as a qualifier to the 2020 Games.

If African championships were deemed substandard, why would international bodies endorse these events as qualifiers for major global championships?

Sascoc deems the continental route for Olympic qualification insufficient to satisfy its criteria – football being the exception. The controversial body took the same stance leading up to the two previous Olympics: in London in 2012, and in Rio in 2016.

The men’s and women’s hockey teams suffered the same fate as the Imbokodo when their continental achievements could not take them to Rio.

If African championships were deemed substandard, why would international bodies endorse these events as qualifiers for major global championships?

At one point, Sascoc insisted that even the men’s and women’s football teams had to win their respective qualifying African events. This, while Fifa’s allocated Olympic slots accommodated even third-placed sides.

Sascoc expects teams and individuals to occupy high world rankings. It is a feat that is near-impossible when one considers the fact that there is not enough funding to send all athletes to international competition – or enough funding even to start with.

This explains why some national sports federations reneged on signing Sascoc’s selection policy agreement, requesting amendments to its criteria for the 2020 Games.

Speaking to City Press this week, Sascoc spokesperson Qondisa Ngwenya said: “We now have a total of 20 federations that have signed out of 31. We are still negotiating with the rest and have not come to an agreement with them on the sport-specific criteria.”

Most of the national federations were expected to have signed on the dotted line in July.

What boggles the mind is the fact that the Women’s Sevens African triumph was rejected, even though Ngwenya confirmed to City Press that the SA Rugby Union was among the federations yet to sign the policy document.

“The contract has not been signed with Saru,” said Ngwenya. “Rugby Africa wanted us to confirm the South African slot to meet its deadlines, but we declined to do so on the basis that the conditions of qualification, in terms of the unsigned agreement, have not been met by the Women’s Sevens team.”

While we understand that a policy is in place, we would have expected Sascoc to apply common sense for the sake of the development of women’s sport in the country.

Many athletes, women in particular, do not get the opportunity to qualify for the Olympics. This is a missed opportunity for Sascoc to endear itself to the many stakeholders who have been advocating equality when it comes to women’s sport.

Last month, only five of South Africa’s female athletes were selected as part of the final track-and-field squad of 31 that competed in this year’s IAAF World Championships in Qatar.

Sascoc should be reminded of the core values espoused by Olympism: it is not about competition only but incorporates such principles as friendship and respect as well.

As the leader of the Olympic Movement, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been advocating the promotion of gender equality in terms of balancing the total number of athletes participating in the Olympics.

But Sascoc wants everything to be cast in stone, to the point that even board members cannot use their discretion to bend the rules for the sake of national pride.

Come on, Sascoc, you can do better. We are not the world beaters we think we are for you to say you do not want to take “passengers” to the Games. And we are well aware that the IOC grants subsidies for participation in the Olympics and that the financial burden is not just on Sascoc.

The Sports Indaba planned for next month by Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa should address issues such as Team SA selection policies. It should not turn into yet another futile exercise, as has been the case under previous ministers.

Athletes cannot afford to be at loggerheads with their federations at every turn in the lead-up to the Olympics.

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