EDITORIAL: Cheer loudly, then reflect

By day six, when the Mail & Guardian went to press, three gold medals were in the bag, a tally bettered only in Atlanta in 1996 (three golds, a silver and bronze) and in Stockholm a century ago (four golds).

Swimming is not a major sporting code in our country, but it quickly became the centre of national celebrations after remarkable victories by Cameron van der Burgh and Chad le Clos. And the unlikely victory of the lightweight-four rowing crew of Sizwe Ndlovu, Matthew Brittain, John Smith and James Thompson got the country buzzing about a brutally tough sport with an elitist image, which is perhaps why it gets minimal attention here.

The South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) set the bar high, asking its athletes to bring home at least 12 medals, a target considered unrealistic given that we only won one silver at the last Olympics in Beijing. That target still looks unlikely, but South Africans are not going to be too concerned if it is missed.

As the athletics commence on Friday, a clearer picture will emerge about whether the resources Sascoc poured into this most-watched code will meet expectations, or whether the administrative upheavals at Athletics South Africa have stunted the potential of the track and field team.

Certainly, it was clear from the early surprises of this week that investment pays rich dividends of good cheer in a country that is experiencing an anxious, even gloomy, moment. There can be little doubt that we get a more gleeful bang for our bucks spent on developing athletes rather than on World Cup stadiums.

The challenge now will be to learn the lessons of this success. How did swimming come home from the American universities to produce new stars? What did the rowing team do right? And how can we insulate our athletes from sometimes venal or incompetent administrators and sporting politics so that they are in a position to do what matters – winning?

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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