Race to Rio will demand a hefty wallet

"People must not praise the government for supporting sport. That's like praising a fish for swimming – it's what it's meant to do."

So says Fikile Mbalula, the sports minister and one of the more palatable people on a South African political scene that regularly shifts into the realm of the bizarre.

South Africans, like people in most other nations, have widely differing views on what the government should be doing and how well it is  doing it, but the nation, almost as a whole, seems to be clamouring for more support for sport in the wake of the feel-good factor the London Olympics generated.

The South African Sports Confed­eration and Olympic Com­mittee (Sascoc) initially set a target of 12 medals for the London Olympics, but given that the previous Games brought just a solitary silver medal for Khotso Mokoena in the long jump, nobody who was in his or her right mind believed it was likely.

Instead, the 2012 Olympics produced three golds, two silvers and one bronze medal – and the target of 12 medals has now been set for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

So who is going to be responsible and, that most unSouth African concept, accountable for ensuring there are a dozen medals being paraded around OR Tambo International Airport in four years' time?

Sporting success
Sascoc chief executive Tubby Reddy admits that his organisation is responsible for ensuring sporting success. "It's very clear who the custodian of sport in South Africa is – it's Sascoc. But we need to engage with the government, the department of sport and the provinces.

"We cannot plan for 2016 if our funding is only annual. We need a cycle of funding and to build the most sustainable programme going forward. We need the government, the lottery and corporates.

"The minister of finance does not talk about sport, but we will go to Pravin Gordhan. We will push the politicians to unlock the resources. I understand there are other priorities, but sport is nation-building and it deserves some slice," Reddy said.

Mbalula is adamant that the government has to find money in its budget for sport. "The government has got to come to the party. We need to support the young child in Gugulethu and Mitchells Plain. That's what the sports plan is about – giving more than R1-billion. But the people need to put the government under pressure to invest in sport so that we can compete with the likes of Australia," he said.

The new sports plan will be launched on October 20. The high-performance components of South African sport are under the control of Sascoc, but the new dispensation will see the establishment of a national plan that will need to be implemented in the provinces while the government will look after sport at school and grassroots levels.

The plan
"The national agenda needs to dictate the provincial pathway. It's like the Springbok coach always says – he wants everyone playing the same way," Reddy said. "The plan will also include the provincial academies, which for five or six years have been all over the place, and the coaching framework.

"The school sport plan has not worked for many years, physical education is out of the curriculum and what is taught in life orientation skills is just not the same. It took the two ministers [sport and education] longer than envisaged to decide how the new process would work, but Minister Mbalula has the passion …and he has the drive."

Part of the reason for the improved medal haul this year was the increased financial support from corporate South Africa. Companies such as Sasol, Nedbank, Vodacom and South African Breweries have a long history of backing sport, but there have been some strident voices out there calling on them to give more because it is payback time.

Such arrogance can only murder the golden goose and, as it is, the confidence of corporate South Africa in sports administrators is not of the highest order. According to some public critics, the tracks of the government gravy train go to the offices of Sascoc in Johannesburg's Melrose and there is something of a power struggle going on between the organisation and some national federations.

"With due respect to the federations, they are not always right when it comes to their talent identification and we have to verify a lot of their submissions. We can't go to the Olympic Games and wonder if we're going to get medals, so we have to work together with the national federations," Reddy said.

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These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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