Aim high, fall far: Is SA trying to break its athletes?

This is the sobering thought of experts and former medallists who have branded the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee's (Sascoc) goal "far-fetched" and part of a "political game".

"It seems almost suicidal to set the bar so high. You don't earn Olympic medals from blood, guts and tears – you win them on years of dedication and preparation. Miracles don't happen willy-nilly and we must realise people don't become overnight sensations," University of Cape Town sports scientist Dr Ross Tucker told the Mail & Guardian on Tuesday.

But Sascoc claims it's not relying on miracles and dreams. Sascoc president Gideon Sam told the M&G in June that solid plans had been made to yield positive results.

"This time we are really going to throw the dice. Every single person who is there is a medal contender. We are going in there to do not only our best but excel because South Africa deserves nothing less," he said.

After South Africa's dreadful performance at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Sascoc claims it immediately set about planning for the London Games in the hope of improving on the solitary silver medal Khotso Mokoena earned for long jump.

Drastic measures were needed to better South Africa's poorest showing since Charles Catterall's lone silver medal in the men's featherweight boxing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Excellence programme
By the beginning of 2009, definitive goals had been set for athletes who had been identified as medal contenders and then drafted into Sascoc's operation excellence programme.

All athletes in the programme were given financial and technical support while their progress was painstakingly monitored.

It's unclear how much money went into the development and training of athletes for London 2012 but Sascoc claimed it ran into millions of rand, despite reports that sponsorship dried up after the team's mediocre performance in Beijing.

"Let's be honest, that was already late. You don't prepare an athlete in three to four years, it takes the better part of eight years. But at the very least we have taken the 'if only' out of the equation. We have given out athletes as much support as we can," Sam said.

Nevertheless, while he remains confident in Team SA now that all preparations have been finalised, Sam said failure to achieve Sascoc's lofty goals would lead to serious introspection in the sporting fraternity, but most likely without him.

"If we go to London and come back with two or three medals, then we must realise that is the best South African sport can offer and immediately start looking at what we are doing wrong," he said.

Accordingly, Sam offered his resignation if Team South Africa "failed".

"If it doesn't work after all the effort we have put in, why would you want to carry on? People should think bigger than themselves and realise it's not in anyone's interests to go to the Olympics and fail – it does not sit well with me," Sam said.

Outweighing reality
In spite of the optimism espoused by Sascoc, Tucker believes anticipation could outweigh reality.

"I would differentiate between an expectation, a hope and a dream. We can expect some medals from the likes of cyclist Burry Stander, swimmer Cameron van der Burgh and javelinist Sunette Viljoen," he said.

"But apart from that nothing is certain we can hope for medals and after that dream."

Tucker added Sascoc may have also made the mistake of building the athletes' expectations too much.

"There's almost a sense of entitlement from certain athletes – as if they have earned a medal because they have trained hard and prepared well. But they must realise medals don't come from simply working hard," he said.

Tucker's sentiments were echoed by one of South Africa's most successful Olympians in recent times – 1996 Atlanta Olympics double gold medallist, Penny Heyns.

"It seems, as South Africans, we don't learn our lessons and put up these far-flung expectations on our athletes. It's already a tremendous pressure to go to the Olympics and compete but to be expected to land a medal when you don't necessarily have what it takes, that's not right," Heyns said.

'Be prepared'
Heyns suggested South Africa's athletes might be better off ignoring what was said on the sidelines and concentrate on what was happening in the competition.

"I made a decisive point of not listening to the media or the hype, it's easier that way. Keep things simple, be prepared and know you are doing it for yourself. I know it sounds selfish but that's what you have to do if you want to succeed," she explained.

Despite the unrealistic expectations, South Africa's 125-member team does have genuine medal "hopefuls" Tucker referred to.

Caster Semenya, 800m sensation and South Africa's flag-bearer, is one of the athletics squad's greatest medal hopefuls.

Her time of 1:55.45 to win the world title in Berlin in 2009, along with her silver at last year's global championships in Daegu, demonstrates her potential to end up on the podium.

Elsewhere on the track, 400m hurdler LJ van Zyl could also be in the running after winning gold at the 201 African championships in Kenya and scoring bronze in Daegu.

Medal prospect
Mokoena is also touted as a medal prospect again along with triathlete Richard Murray, who launched himself into contention with a maiden victory at the World Series in Hamburg earlier this year.

Canoeist Bridgitte Hartley is considered a genuine contender for a medal after she set an unofficial world record last year in the K1 500m race.

BMX ace Sifiso Nhlapo will also hope to make up for lost time after he tragically crashed out of the final in Beijing after being labelled a medal favourite in the discipline's maiden appearance at the Games.

"There is no straight answer for how you win a medal. It all comes together at the right time. It's about preparing well and knowing it takes a lot of work – mentally and physically during the event. You need to be aware of that, and then hope a little bit of luck is on your side," Heyns said.

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