The tradition of South African swimming is strong, if not under-celebrated on the global spectrum. Never is it likely to challenge the sport’s superpowers, but the nation has done enough throughout its history to warrant a nod of respect. And, that nod comes with a caveat.
Before the International Olympic Committee lifted its ban on South Africa for the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Jonty Skinner, and before him, Karen Muir were among the nation’s elite athletes denied the opportunity to compete on the biggest stage in sports. But because of South Africa’s Apartheid practices, the country was persona non grata in Olympic competition from 1964 to 1988.
Since there is no way to rewrite history, who knows how past Olympiads would have unfolded had South Africa been granted inclusion. It isn’t a stretch, though, to state Muir would have contended for gold medals in the 100 and 200 backstroke events at the 1968 Games in Mexico City. After all, she was a world-record setter in both events.
In the case of Skinner, a sprint-freestyle legend, he was denied a potential crowning moment at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. While American Jim Montgomery surged to the title with the first sub-50 clocking in history, an effort of 49.99, Skinner could only watch. While he went a half-second faster a few weeks after the Games, Skinner’s world record led to what-if questions.
More recently, the country celebrated the achievements of Penny Heyns, so dominant in the breaststroke events that her competition was primarily racing for silver. Meanwhile, 2012 Olympic champions Chad Le Cos (200 butterfly) and Cameron van der Burgh (100 breaststroke) have carried the tradition of South African swimming.
But there is little debate over the seminal moment in the nation’s aquatic history. It all went down on August 15, 2004 when Roland Schoeman jump-started his country to the Olympic crown in the 400 freestyle relay. While South Africa headed to Athens with a quality lineup, it was not considered the favorite. That distinction went to the United States.
Yet, when the scoreboard stopped, there was South Africa on top, bound for the highest step on the podium. With Schoeman powering his team to a sizable advantage on the opening leg, Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend and Ryk Neethling tied the bow on a world-record performance of 3:13.17, good for a one-plus second triumph over the Netherlands.
The effort remains esteemed in South African sporting lore, but what has it meant for growth? Honestly, very little. If some younger South African athletes a decade ago were inspired by the showing, that is a positive. Otherwise, Swimming South Africa, the country’s governing body of the sport, has taken a step back in the 10 years which have elapsed.
Quite simply, SSA has been an embarrassment, an organisation perceived to be politically motivated and a body that appears to have placed the personal feelings of its lead officials over what should be paramount: supporting South African athletes – and giving them the best opportunity to succeed. In the last decade alone, there have been several instances of poor treatment of athletes. But the last few weeks are actually enough to get the picture.
With the Commonwealth Games approaching, it was recently announced that athletes traveling to the competition from outside of South Africa would have to bridge the financial gap in the expense required to get to Glasgow. Ultimately, that decision was reversed and funds were located to avoid such a scenario. Had that change not been made, Schoeman – tracking a fifth Olympic bid – and Dylan Bosch, who trains at the University of Michigan, would have been digging into their pockets.
In the last few days came the news that any South African athlete who desires to compete at the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia would have to self-fund the trip. That type of travel and boarding is going to run thousands of dollars and any team which now travels to Pan Pacs is going to be far from an A-Team.
So, what is the reasoning for these actions of Swimming South Africa? Well, that’s where the picture is somewhat murky. Could it be that SSA is in dire financial trouble, in such a poor position that every Rand (South Africa’s currency) must be counted? Could it be that the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) is bleeding money? If so, then it is time for those organizations to reach out and request aid from other nations to help design successful models.
What is more likely the answer, however, is a pettiness within high-ranking officials and coaches who have a difficult time accepting that premier swimmers are training overseas, mainly in the United States. Really, when there has been a dispute in recent years, it has typically revolved around those training in the U.S. Hey, it’s no coincidence that the Commonwealth Games squad included athletes whose work is done outside of their homeland.
If Swimming South Africa wanted to capitalize on the popularity of the sport and talent it can produce, it shouldn’t be throwing fits over training locales. Rather, it should be concerned with whether or not its premier athletes were improving and getting into a position to excel at the highest point possible. Is France complaining about Yannick Agnel training in Baltimore? Is Denmark whining about Lotte Friisdoing the same? No. Did Hungary or Russia pout over Katinka Hosszu and Vladimir Morozov training in Southern California? No.
It’s common practice for international athletes to seek a training atmosphere they feel is best for their needs. For that reason, Schoeman has long stationed himself in Arizona. Sebastien Rousseau currently feels the University of Florida is his best setup. For Bosch, working with Mike Bottom in Michigan is the right fit.
In the case of Le Clos and Van der Burgh, they have clearly found a scenario in South Africa which works, and that is great, too. But they should not be treated differently and given greater benefits than their fellow countrymen. It’s counterproductive.
As for the loyalty argument, that one can be dispelled. Think back to 2005, when oil-rich Qatar was trying to lure athletes from a variety of countries to compete under its flag. Schoeman was one of the pursued athletes, but turned down a multi-million-dollar offer to stay with his homeland. What has he gotten for his loyalty? Not much, except for a few headaches.
Ten years ago, South Africa had a chance to build something special off of the success of its Olympic 400 free relay. And while Le Clos and Van der Burgh have risen to the top of their events, there is a stench in the air over the way Swimming South Africa has presided over a poor outcome for its swimmers.
[SwimVortex requested a comment for clarification from the South African federation but no response has been received at the time of publication].