Senior schools’ athletics system was the bedrock for identifying talent

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Clement du Plessis

WAYDE van Niekerk’s world-record breaking performance at the Rio Olympic Games was no fluke, neither will it be the last time that a South African athlete in a united, democratic South Africa wins a gold medal at the Games in the future.

Athletics is on the rise in South Africa, after being in constant financial turmoil the last 22 years.

Eddie May
Former sprint coach Eddie May, 85, says there is more talent in Cape Town than Canada, not discounting the gems in other parts of the country.

Van Niekerk’s performances over the past three years have taken the spotlight off the negative issues bedevilling the administration of athletics in South Africa. His scintillating performances are there for all South Africans and beyond to savour. He has become a role model and beacon of hope to thousands of aspiring athletes languishing in the sprawling townships across South Africa.

He is a product of Bellville Primary School and Grey College. He made his international debut in athletics at the 2010 World Junior Championships in Canada. He matriculated from the college in 2011.

Untapped

In an article on Athletics Clipboard, former sprint coach Eddie May, 85, says there is more talent in Cape Town than Canada, not discounting the gems in other parts of the country.

Given May’s observation, while the pool of talent in South Africa may be vast, it remains mostly untapped.

South Africa has transcended apartheid to a vibrant democracy, but when it comes to unearthing athletics talent across the country, it leaves a lot to be desired. After 22 years, structures in the townships should have been put in place, instead scam coaching sessions, under the guise of development coaching, parades as the real deal.

Sacos
The South African Council on Sport (Sacos), provided athletics to hundreds of high schools, through its affiliate, the South African Senior Schools Sports Association (Sasssa), during apartheid.

Has there been an Olympic medallist who has come through the supposedly development programme, and where is this programme to be found? And has the number of track and field clubs in the country, the follow through after schools, declined over the years?

The Sports Science Institute of SA’s High-Performance Centre exists in Pretoria and another building in Newlands, Cape Town is far removed from where these centres are needed the most.

Black athletes

Athletics is a far cry from when the non-racial sports body, the South African Council on Sport (Sacos), provided athletics to hundreds of high schools, through its affiliate, the South African Senior Schools Sports Association (Sasssa), during apartheid.

Sasssa had its tentacles throughout South African coloured schools, a structure that should have absorbed black athletes in later years, if not at the outset. But Sasssa did not, and this was seen as a major failure at the time of unity in 1992.

Gugulethu athletes
The lack of mass participation by black athletes in Sasssa and the senior athletics body, the South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB), was seen as a flaw of Sasssa and SAAAB’s sports strategy at the time of unity.

Division among white, black and coloured people along racial lines, based on the policy of apartheid, made Sasssa’s entry into the townships and suburbs a difficult one. Our lives revolved around our subjugation. White suburbs had curfews for black and coloured people. Townships required a permit.

The lack of an absorption of black athletes into Sassa and the senior athletics body, the South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB), was seen as a flaw of Sasssa and SAAAB’s sports strategy at the time of unity.

Wasted talent

Sasssa had a system of schools’ athletics that made for compelling viewing and entertainment in a number of disadvantaged communities.

Year after year, Sasssa’s members, the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (WPSSSU), EP, Boland, SWD, Transvaal, Natal and later Namibia, unearthed superb talent that would eventually go to waste because of the lack of international competition due to the international sports boycott.  The apartheid political system at the time was, rightfully, blamed for sporting isolation.

Similarly, in the white schools, talent surfaced that would make South Africans sit up and take notice on both sides of the apartheid divide.

SAAAB champs
Athletics was probably at its peak throughout the whole of South Africa in the decade of the 1980s, in spite of the state of emergency in 1985.

Athletics was probably at its peak throughout the whole of South Africa in the 1980s, in spite of the state of emergency in 1985.

The sport had been unable to harness the plethora of athletics talent at the time, and the continuation of the sport, played under the separate national bodies the South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB) and the South African Amateur Athletics Union (SAAAU), fell victim to sports unity when South Africa was welcomed back at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games.

Untested and ill-prepared

Generally, in spite of Elana’s Meyer’s achievement at the 1992 Games, South African athletes were untested and ill-prepared for international competition. The other silver medal came from Wayne Ferreira and Piet Norval in the doubles tennis competition for a sum total of two medals in 1992.

Even a maximum of 10 medals at the Rio Olympics is surely not a true reflection of the talent available in the country.  What’s more, the medals won in Rio do not come from government coaching clinics. Some might argue that Luvo Manyonga’s does, but he had been nurtured at Maties in Stellenbosch.

Couple the ill-preparedness for international sport in 1992 with the break-up of a successful athletics system under Sasssa, SAAAB and the SAAAU, and track and field athletics was never the same again.

SAAAB merged with the predominantly white South African Amateur Athletics Union (SAAAU), while SAAACON, which one has never heard of before, surfaced during this time to form part of the new body, Athletics South Africa (ASA).

WPSSSU
Athletics scenes like this no longer exist at high school meetings where the track and stand were equally vibrant.

SAAACON being the South African Amateur Athletics Congress.

Sasssa morphed into Usasssa, with new rules and approaches to the sport. No longer was the sport involved with all the athletes and teachers at athletics meetings. The strength versus strength sectional meetings no longer exist. At its peak, there were 12 inter-school sections at Western Province senior schools.

Interest wanes

What happens instead is that schools now only send a small percentage of their athletes to school meetings at a stipulated time for their events, where the atmosphere and environment are lost – and perhaps it has even killed off the general interest of learners at all schools. The athletes then leave the meeting after their event.  The smaller pool of athletes will also have affected the senior ranks of club athletics and, ultimately, the country’s available talent for international athletics.

The revival of student athletics league meetings (the intervarsity athletics), and the broadcasting of the events by a pay-per-view television sports channel, over the last three years or so, has boosted athletics in the country.

Norma Joseph
Most schools start with an inter-house, inter-schools, inter-zonals and Western Province, with the Western Cape team being the highest honour in your province.

In the interim, the quality of schools’ athletics (times and distances) has picked up, but more could be done to attract bigger numbers to these athletics meetings. A good starting point for school athletics is to streamline the number of competitions in each province. Most schools start with an inter-house, inter-schools, inter-zonals and Western Province, with the Western Cape team being the highest honour in your province.

Availability of tracks

Thereafter, a national schools’ athletics meeting is held where all nine provinces showcase their talent – all of these meetings, starting with an inter-house meeting, take place between February and April. It is a tight schedule, given the availability of tracks and stadiums big enough to accommodate 8 000 thousand pupils at a time, multiplied by the number of inter-school sections. The University of the Western Cape’s athletics track is probably the best-laid track in the province, but both the once magnificent UWC and Bellville Velodrome tracks are in disrepair.

Mostly these days, a school only attends its inter-house meetings, with the rest of the meetings being reduced to school representation on a much smaller scale than had been the case with Sasssa athletics meetings.

The ability, with the voluntary assistance of high school teachers, to organise high schools athletics meetings involving a greater number of athletes will go a long way to boost the pool of athletes for our next Wayde van Niekerks, Akani Simbines, Caster Semenyas and Sunette Viljoens, to name a few of the athletes strutting the world Diamond League stage.

Athlone Athlone
This photograph captures the athletics activity of a typical Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union meeting at the old Athlone Stadium in Cape Town.

8 thoughts on “Senior schools’ athletics system was the bedrock for identifying talent

  • November 27, 2017 at 10:53 pm
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    As a former athlete at Belgravia senior secondary, I salute all my past fellow athletes on field or track events. How memorable were those days , I wish our generation of children can also experience something so wonderful today.
    Seraj Girie (100m /200m ) sprinter.

    Reply
  • November 25, 2017 at 12:20 am
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    Very true Clement, there is just lack of funding and exposure but tons of talent all over the place, especially in the Western Cape. Interesting article.

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  • March 13, 2017 at 5:50 pm
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    I was part of the relay team that represented Harold Cressy High School from 1975 to 1978 which won the Champ of Champs every year ie. Under 14 till Under 17. This race was always the highlight for the school.These events were well supported at the Athlone Stadium.The team comprised of Brandon Wynne, Paul Brandt, Moosa Teladia and Anwar Jakoet. The team was coached by Derek Naidoo.
    These were really memorable years!!

    Reply
  • October 20, 2016 at 2:04 pm
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    As an athlete, I enjoyed the cheerleaders egging on the students with their brand of war cry getting athletes motivated to do well or extraordinary performances. I sorely miss the war cries even though I am not young anymore

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  • October 14, 2016 at 12:43 pm
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    Any news on Mark Waverley, a brilliant 800m athlete of the late 1980’s who ran for, I think, Zeekoeivlei Senior Secondary.

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    • October 14, 2016 at 2:59 pm
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      We recognise the name. If we’re not mistaken, he was in the WPSSSU team in 1981 already. If he has a scrapbook, we want to hear from him. Send contact details to: info@athleticsclipboard.co.za

      Thanks.

      Reply
  • August 25, 2016 at 10:18 pm
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    The students learnt their craft in primary schools, which had a similarly structured SAPSSA. Armien Dharsey was the president from the late 70s. People like Doreen Slinger (nee Petersen) was a long-time treasurer.

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  • August 25, 2016 at 4:52 pm
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    Really sad how schools sport stopped to be the highlight of every pupil at the school. The interschools in the different sections at Athlone stadium (for me in the late 70’s at Kensington High and in the mid-80’s as a high school teacher) was something to look forward to, even for me as a non sporty person (I favoured music and completed a degree in music after school). It instilled pride in our school and really united the pupils. My best memory of my days as a teacher at Excelsior High (Old Belhar no 2) is probably when the school came first in the H section! It didn’t matter the section then, as long as our school came first. Never were we more united than on that day. And the principal (hated by many in those days) suddenly became the hero of us all! I call for a return to the old format. I’m sure it will assist in bringing back school pride and discipline, as learners will be able to look up to role models at their own and neighouring schools!

    Reply

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