/ 4 April 2008

The ultimate meritocracy

Someone neglected to remind the participants at the South African National Aquatic Championship in Durban about the oft-repeated truism that the whole sports thing is more about taking part and less about winning. Perhaps even if someone had, the swimmers would not have been too bothered to listen.

At the Kings Park pool in Durban this week, the reverse held true. Economics triumphed over sport. Medals and places in the Olympics team, which were limited to two per event, were scarce resources that made the swimmers go for the kill.

It may cause some distress to some dyed-in-the-wool leftists, but the Olympics subtext is that not all humans are created equal. Some, such as Suzaan van Biljon, Roland Schoeman, Gideon Louw, Lyndon Ferns, Ryk Neethling and Cameron van der Burgh will go to the Olympics in Beijing.

Others, such as 12-year-old Jessica Loos, Yolana du Plessis and Thabang Moeketsane will watch on TV, like billions of us, unless they improved their times by the time this paper hit the streets. It would have made a great little story had South Africa been able to send pre-teen Loos to the games. She would have been the youngest South African there.

Advocates of racial transformation could have been placated had Du Plessis and Moeketsane done enough to merit a place in the team, which makes one wonder what fallen rugby boss Mike Stofile would think of its almost lily-whiteness. But on the field or in the pool, sport is the ultimate leveller and it is always the ultimate meritocracy.

Those who swim faster than the rest get to chat to the lovely Crystal Arnold — SuperSport sports anchor — while she allows those who take with them the consolatory reward of not winning but taking part to pass her without even the pretence of that grin that is so much part of polite Western society.

Talent, skill and months of conditioning are supreme here. Some, like Sebastien Rousseau, may add fortune to the mix. Rousseau, who postponed his matric year to concentrate on making the Olympics, broke his African and South African records but was still just under a second too slow or too unlucky to make the Olympic qualifying standard.

No matter how valid the argument, glory in sport does not entertain the polemics relating to who is culpable for the failure to transform the sport and make it reflective of all of the country’s youth.