When he took the microphone at OR Tambo International Airport as Team SA arrived to a rapturous reception, the only thing SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) president Gideon Sam said, was: “I’m not going to be too long. I promised 10 medals and I have brought you 10 medals.”
This earned him joyful applause from the crowd.
Little did he know that, a few hours later, he would be putting out fires after stinging tweets from javelin thrower and silver medallist Sunette Viljoen.
Viljoen, who did not return with the team because she went straight to Europe to compete, caused a ruckus when she tweeted, among other things: “He delivered? What did he deliver? If only the truth was known.”
She went on: “If there’s one organisation that needs urgent investigation, it is Sascoc. Start with the R70 million donation by the Lottery two weeks before Rio.” In another tweet, Viljoen claims she “had to pay out of my own pocket for my Olympic kit to be adjusted by a tailor, because sizes were not taken”.
While Sam sounded shocked, saying he had met Viljoen several times at the athletes’ village in Rio de Janeiro during the Games, and all she could do at the time was thank him, Sascoc released a statement in which it revealed that Viljoen had received more than R800 000 from its Operation Excellence fund last year alone.
Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula dismissed Viljoen as a “crybaby” who “always complains”. She, however, received significant support from the public and other athletes.
Another call that reverberated as the team returned was for 20 medals at the 2020 Games in Tokyo. While 20 in 2020 rhymes well, Sam told City Press that it was a premature call.
“Work for 2020 starts right now. We have an annual general meeting on Saturday [yesterday]. This is where we will determine the selection criteria for the next quadrennial,” he said.
“By early next year, all the federations will know what the selection criteria are. It is only after the 2018 Commonwealth Games that we can start setting targets.”
Sam said these Games are usually a good barometer, as they happen right in the middle of the Olympic quadrennial circle.
“At the Commonwealth Games, you compete against countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada,” he said. “If an athlete struggles in these Games, in the absence of superpowers such as the US and Russia, then you know that they are not good enough for the Olympics.”
This is how he had come to the target of 10 – the number was determined by South Africa’s performance at the Glasgow Games.
Asked how he felt about the 10-medal haul, the best since 1992, Sam said: “I feel two levels of excitement. One, that we reached our target of 10 medals, and two, to see the amount of support from the South African public.
“It think the media played a big role in the second aspect by keeping the public well-informed. Social media was abuzz and played a huge role as well.”
Sam said it was important to ride this crest of the wave going forward by keeping the public informed about the goings-on at Sascoc.
He said part of the plan should be to hold monthly and quarterly sessions with the media to keep them as well as the public abreast of the happenings within his organisation.
The president is in his second term, which expires at the elective annual general meeting in November.
“That’s another reason that I can’t talk too much about future plans. The federations might say in November, ‘thank you very much’, and elect a new president,” he said.
It has been a long, winding road for a man who started his career as a security guard for a crockery-manufacturing company.
Born and bred in Somerset West, he has always had a penchant for sports and participated in what was then known as the mile (1 500m), while also playing rugby as an outside centre for the school’s first team.
“Sport was a big thing in the coloured community in those days,” he remembers.
“After finishing high school, I joined the ex-scholars rugby club. This was an automatic move as all former Gordon High School students end up playing for this team.”
After his one-year stint as a security guard, Sam went on to train as a teacher in Alice. After furthering his studies at the University of Fort Hare, he became a headmaster, but continued to manage sports at the schools he headed.
It was in those years that he met the likes of Reverend Makhenkesi Stofile (who was buried on Thursday), Ngconde Balfour, Smuts Ngonyama, John Ncinane and Mluleki George.
This is where the seeds of nonracial sports were planted – seeds that led to Sam finding himself in the company of the likes of Krish Mackerdhuj and Dr Ali Bacher (both cricket), Ebrahim Patel (rugby) and Danny Jordaan (football), and being part of the formation of the National Sports Council, the predecessor to Sascoc.
Today, he says: “I wish we could bring back that culture of robust debate on sporting issues, as well as the culture of mass participation in sports at schools. Sadly, the multisports culture only remains in the former Model C schools.”