Sport

Big business leaves SA swimmers to drown

Michael Todt, Jason Humphries

Where to now for South African swimming, with the 2016 Olympics in Rio fast approaching?

South African swimming champion Chad le Clos. (Gallo)

When Chad le Clos edged out Michael Phelps to win the 200m butterfly gold at last year's Olympic Games the future of swimming in South Africa looked bright – but the sport has, since then, seemingly limped from one fiasco to the next.

Swimming South Africa (SSA) is currently without a title sponsor. This has led to suggestions that some of the members of the team competing at the World Championships in Barcelona in July and August will have to pay to attend the event.

The South African Sports Federation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) has made it clear that swimmers on the Operation Excellence programme will not have to pay to make the trip to Barcelona, but only five swimmers – Le Clos, Cameron van der Burgh, Suzaan van Biljon, Roland Schoeman and Troy Prinsloo, are on the programme.

The recent South African championships in Port Elizabeth were bedevilled by poor water quality because of burst pipes, and two days of the national showpiece were called off.

The less than perfect racing conditions were partly to blame for only four male swimmers – Schoeman (50m freestyle), Van der Burgh (100m breaststroke), Myles Brown (800m freestyle) and Le Clos (100m and 200m butterfly) – achieving qualifying times for the world champs. No female swimmers achieved a qualifying mark.

The question is: Where to now for South African swimming, with the 2016 Olympics in Rio fast approaching?

SSA has a plan to increase its pool of Olympic-standard female swimmers. Van Biljon is already regarded as an important member of the squad, although she did not compete at the South African champs because of a double ear infection.

No role models
Dean Price, SSA's high-performance manager, outlined the organisation's plans, which include trying to provide young female swimmers with something to aim for.

"We have great young female swimmers but women's sport in South Africa is, I'm afraid to say, pretty weak. There are no role models," Price told the Mail & Guardian.

"A magazine has come on board to help promote women's swimming and we hope to launch in the next month or so," he added.

SSA hopes to better Team South Africa's performance at the London Olympics when they head to Rio.

Le Clos and Van der Burgh were responsible for two golds and a silver in London. 

"Right now, things are looking good [for Rio]," Price said.

"We have two of the world's best athletes in Chad and Cameron. They are the two team leaders, and Graham Hill [coach] and myself are looking to build a team around those two for 2016.

Swimming battles
"We got two gold medals and a silver in London, and we have to do better in 2016. It is easier to build a team around two people who know what it takes to win. We are not talking 200 to 300 swimmers. If we can get four to five swimmers to build around those two then we will be happy with that," he added.

However, much of SSA's plans will revolve around finance, something that a sport like swimming battles to attract.

Lee Roy Newton, Le Clos's former agent and now an Olympic sports agent, believes that the lack of sponsorship for SSA is down to corporate South Africa, rather than any failings on the part of the country's swimming federation.

"I can be quite specific here. We actually assisted SSA with their commercial rights. We dealt with one of the larger financial institutions, and they were not willing to invest. SSA was kind enough to even lessen the value or 'asking price' and there was still no interest. So it's not SSA that is failing – it's corporate South Africa that is not getting involved," said Newton.

"I have to be fair to SSA, because I know that they have done as much as they can on their side, which is take their product [swimming] to the market. The market just hasn't been receptive of it.

"And I understand why, because we have the big three in cricket, rugby and football. They've got a larger portion of the broadcasting rights and that's what South Africa wants to see at the moment. All of these factors really tie into it," he explained.

Newton believes that it will take time before corporate South Africa sees the benefits of sponsoring sports such as swimming.

Endorsement deals
"We need to help corporates understand the value behind getting involved with these athletes," he said. "We are still very young as a country in terms of understanding the commercial side of things, and it will take some time." 

Newton said it was encouraging to see that many more athletes had received endorsement deals in the past two to three years, "and you see them involved with television advertisements". 

"It's a good sign, but it's slow progress at the moment and it's going to take a few years," he said.

Price and Hill believe that it is vital for South Africa's up-and-coming crop of swimmers to be able to compete at international events as much as possible so that when they arrive at the next Olympics they are not struck by stage fright.

Newton said that Sascoc and SSA are on the right track in terms of building up to Rio.

"I had a meeting with them post-London and they already have a plan for 2016. I think this isn't the case for most federations around the world in terms of Rio," he said.

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