Weightlifters strain under cash burdens

Two weeks ago in Malaysia Babalwa Ndleleni immediately posted “I won gold” after she came top in the Commonwealth Championships 75kg women’s weightlifting event. Those of us who are her Facebook friends congratulated her.

The South African champion arrived home with a gold medal but there were no print, broadcast or online media to greet her.
In fact, this writer was the only media person to phone her, two weeks later, about her success.

She did not ask me how much I would pay her for the interview, or to whom I would sell the story. All she said was: “Sure you can interview me, but can we speak in 30minutes because I am in a noisy taxi on my way to training in Strand.”

If there were awards for black sportswomen who overcome adversity and lack of support to succeed, this Cape Town athlete would win successive gold medals. She gets very little financial support or recognition, despite posting outstanding results in continental and world sports events. Her sports life epitomises the trials and tribulations of disadvantaged women in sport, particularly black women, who are not viewed as big commercial products or brand powers. Sponsors and commercial media ignore them.

It is tragic that Ndleleni, one of South Africa’s few world-class sportswomen, not only accepts a monthly stipend of R2 000, but also survives on it. This cannot be said about cricket, football or rugby players, who are well paid to represent their country, sometimes with less success.

“We do not get much assistance from our federations because they also receive very little support,” Ndleleni says. “The end result is that we suffer as athletes. It’s the same story of not enough money when we go to events in Africa and world championships. How can we improve if we are not even competing regularly?”

The road to the top has been painful. She grew up in the Cape Town township of Nyanga—one of South Africa’s crime and murder hot spots—where women and girls did not play sport. Her introduction to weightlifting was by chance. In 1998, when Ndleleni was 19, the South African Weightlifting Federation held a coaching clinic at her school, Nelson Mandela High in New Crossroads.

Although she had never heard of the sport, it immediately captured her heart. She found her way into a makeshift gym in New Crossroads and began basic training. There, the community gym coach quickly noticed her talent.

In addition, a lack of material support, Ndleleni has overcome other obstacles. She recovered from TB and survived a near-fatal accident when she was hit by a car while on a training run in Crossroads in 2002. The accident caused a shoulder injury that forced her out of training for the rest of 2002.

Undeterred, she bounced back, and finally received her national colours and the chance to represent South Africa at the African Championships in 2003. Her poor result in that event did not dampen her spirit—if anything, it pushed her to work harder.

Ranked number 16 she tore the form books to shreds when she won a bronze medal at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. With that, she became the first black woman weightlifter to win a medal at an international event, and South Africa’s first black woman to win a Commonwealth medal.

Ndleleni had to buy her first pair of proper weightlifting shoes when she arrived in Australia. Back home she had used an old pair of sneakers. Competing in the 75kg category she recorded a lift of 78kg, a national record, and a jerk of 104kg, to total 182kg.

Even this success did not bring national recognition. She was included in the Operation Excellence programme of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, an elite athlete-assistance programme to prepare for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Through this programme she was awarded a monthly stipend of R4 000. The programme got under way about 18 months before the Olympics, but after one payment, Ndleleni failed to see another for several months.

She was eventually removed from the programme when the South African women’s team did not qualify, although she had achieved Olympic qualification individually.

Ndleleni still accepts whatever financial help comes her way, and although she has been motivated to date by her love for the sport and her desire to be the best, she doubts how long this can last.

“It’s very difficult to keep motivating yourself,” she says. “Sometimes you feel like you just can’t go on any more and you have to stop training and work fulltime.

“I have been fortunate to travel to other countries, but I have no money. I am living from hand to mouth. I stay with my family in Nyanga and dedicate my life to training.

“I took a full-time job in January but gave it up in April because I was falling behind with my training. But the challenge is now too much to bear ... I am giving it a final push in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in India and then I think I will have to bring the curtain down on my sports life.”

About the very minimal support she receives, Ndleleni says: “I think this is what keeps South African sport from developing world and Olympic medallists, because when a sportswoman must make a choice between sport and earning money, then money wins. You put down your kit and with it your dreams, and get a job.

“Until our government and whoever is in charge of sport wakes up to this truth, they will always wonder how other countries are doing it. It’s not rocket science to guess how athletes should be developed,” she says.

Cheryl Roberts is a social commentator and an analyst on South African sport

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