WESLEY PETERSEN: Cameron - A Return on Investment
It's not surprising that investment equals Olympic medals.
One angle that escaped me initially when Cameron van der Burgh won South Africa’s first medal at the London Games on Sunday, was that he was the first South African man to win an individual gold medal in the pool - ever.
It is a remarkable fact, because the swimming team has consistently emerged as the country’s best hope for medals in the 20 years since returning to the Olympics post -isolation. It is hard to imagine that we have never had a male winner in the pool, but it just illustrates how competitive the Olympic Games are. The ‘Golden Boys’ of 2004 did the nation proud with gold in Athens, but South Africa, for all the reliance on the swimming team, has never consistently dominated the pool, the way that the Americans have for example.
It is not fair to compare different teams though, as the US, Australia, China and several other leading contenders at The Games have significantly more resources and money. It is not a surprise that investment equals medals. Everyone, including Sport Minister Fikile Mbalula and SASCOC President Gideon Sam, knows this. That South Africa cannot compete in terms of funding is a fact; how we manage with limited resources is important.
I think one has to commend SASCOC for developing a long-term plan to identify elite athletes and then invest in them. I’m sure it’s not easy to say ‘no’ to talented athletes, but by focusing funding on a select group of athletes, results can be achieved. While The Games may only be four-days old, I believe it is early still early days at The Games, but the approach has already been proven, because The Olympics are not only about participating, they are about competing.
LJ van Zyl, the 400 metres hurdler, was one of the athletes omitted from the elite funding list initially when it was introduced in 2009, but his reaction was strong. He proved his fitness and ability to force his way back into contention. The athletes on SASCOC’s OPEX list are given funding and every opportunity to reach their potential.
Some would argue it is subjective and that very good young athletes with potential, are not given access to funding due to the selective system, but based on Sunday night’s achievement, it’s clear that it works.
Van der Burgh is a very talented and hardworking swimmer, who under other circumstances may have been forced to swim elsewhere, like the US, to reach the heights that he has over the past few years. He would not have reached the heights he has, had he not had the necessary support. Every athlete needs that, and if sport is your livelihood, it means money – money to live, money to train, money to buy the best equipment.
So here is the clincher – van der Burgh, South Africa’s first-ever individual male swimming gold medalist, has received over R1.12 million in support from SASCOC since 2009, the highest amount for any athlete in the system.
It worked in this case. It might not work all the time. The bottom line, though, is, without that kind of investment, homegrown world-record breaking gold medal performances are simply not going to materialise.
Wesley Petersen is the EWN Sport Editor.