By Emeraan Ishmail
SINCE the mid-1990’s South African athletics as a whole has been on a downward spiral – a decline that can have serious ramifications for years to come. Over the past two decades it has been very clear that there is an almost unlimited pool of untapped athletic talent in the broader South Africa, but particularly in the greater Western Cape area. This region has over the years (before the early 1990’s) produced great athletes, both male and female, in just about all the track and field disciplines. (See Emeraan Ishmail, with white sweatband, in the main photograph)
While athletics was not the only sport in which sportsmen and sportswomen excelled during this period, it was almost certainly the feeder sport for most, if not all, of the other sports in the Western Province region. Many of the great rugby, soccer, netball, cricket, etc., players were also great athletes. And those sportsmen who were not champion athletes had at least participated in athletics at school. It could be suggested that participation in school athletics was an unwritten entry requirement for any other code.
And this is the crux of the matter – school athletics. The South African Senior Schools Sports Association (SASSSA), an affiliate of the South African Council on Sport (Sacos), played a pivotal role in providing non-racial sport to all schools in the provinces of the country, which saw 101 high schools compete in an inter-school athletics competition under the banner of the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (WPSSSU) until 1994, the year South Africa became a democracy.
The inter-schools’ meetings (competition) would climax with the Champion of Champions, widely known as the Champ of Champs.
For many, the competition started at primary school level. But it was at high school that things became really serious, and competition really competitive.
As an unfortunate consequence of the political reality of the day, the Hewat Teacher Training College also competed with the WPSSSU, as they had no other tertiary institutions to compete against. But, it was also the place where many athletes honed their skills after passing through the school system. Many years later, the University of the Western Cape (UWC) would also join the competitions at club level, and like in the case of Hewat, produced many outstanding athletes.
While we celebrate our hard-fought democracy, it has left unintended victims in its wake.
One of these is the non-racial institution, SASSSA, who had served the community for so many years. And this institution is the glorious institution of school sport, but particularly athletics, which we should remember was the feeder for all sports. This fact is sad for many reasons. While we no longer produce great athletes at school and club level, there is a much deeper loss. During the apartheid years, sport, and athletics in particular, galvanised our schools and communities.
There was an electric atmosphere at the inter-schools and Champs meetings that was unmatched anywhere else. Having just attended the Rio Olympics, I can confidently state that not even the atmosphere at the Olympics could match any one of our inter-schools or Champs meetings. The only times that the exciting atmosphere came anywhere close was when Bolt had won his finals, but I still think that our inter-schools beat even those euphoric moments.
We have lost that, and with it the bonds that grew from that togetherness. Schools may have been sporting rivals, but it was almost an affectionate rivalry. But the loss is even deeper than that. Many of our youth who would have been lost to drugs and other vices found purpose in life through athletics and other sports. What alternatives do they now have?
And it goes even deeper. The South African educational authorities have tried everything in their power to improve our educational system, and with it, to produce better graduates and output from our universities, but have failed dismally.
It is the author’s humble opinion that at least part of the reason for this failure is their fixation on a narrow programme that sees the development of a child as the product of pumping stuff into the head of a child. It ignores the fact that that head is carried by the parts of the body that sit below it, and that this greater mass needs to be nurtured as well if we are to encourage the production of whole human beings. We have to adopt a holistic approach if we really want to excel academically – we MUST build the body, so that we can build the spirit, which in turn will nurture the brain.
It is easy to be swept away by the euphoria of the outstanding performances of Wayde van Niekerk and Caster Semenya and believe that we have returned to our glory days. We have not. Yes, we have these two exceptions, but for every Wayde or Caster, there is a thousand athletes with similar potential who go to waste, some even literally, as they succumb to the ugly reality of drug abuse.
Just imagine what we could have achieved if we invested in, and nurtured all this latent talent that is washed down the drain every year.
So while we celebrate Wayde and Caster, let us mourn for the lost potential while praying for the resurrection of schools’ athletics to once again bring hope to a hopeless generation.
If we did that, Jamaica would send their best athletes to South Africa, so that they could experience what it is like to train with the world’s best athletes. Oh, and so would Kenya.
*Emeraan Ishmail is a former WPSSSU (schools) and WPAAU (clubs) 800m champion. He is UWC science graduate, a UCT B.Com (Honours) and MBA graduate. He writes in his personal capacity.