/ 28 April 2016

Transformation: Sports farce in land of pantomime

Star attraction: Chad le Clos is a huge Olympic Games drawcard but Swimming SA still can’t attract a sponsor and struggles to grow the sport in South Africa.
Star attraction: Chad le Clos is a huge Olympic Games drawcard but Swimming SA still can’t attract a sponsor and struggles to grow the sport in South Africa.

On Boxing Day 2015, while much of South Africa was nursing a babalas, the country’s domestic cricketers considered industrial action. Chief culprits were players from the Titans and the Eagles, from Pretoria and Bloemfontein respectively, and although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how close they were to not taking the field in a fresh round of Sunfoil Series matches, a strike was certainly discussed.

The bone of contention was Cricket South Africa’s (CSA) new transformation numbers, which stipulate that there have to be six players of colour – including three “black Africans” – in any team of 11. While the rest of the country faced left-over turkey legs, congealed gravy and cold roast potatoes, so some future Proteas were turned from the brink.

The strike was averted but the dissatisfaction rumbled through the season like a runaway bus. Unwatched, unloved and unheralded, domestic cricket only gets attention when reasons need to be found for the national side’s under-performance. Otherwise it sits on the sporting mantelpiece, gathering dust, a bygone relic from a forgotten age.

Aside from local cricket’s inadvertent contribution to the history of philosophy (“If a strike is contemplated but there is no one there to see it …”), what was at stake on Boxing Day was a growing gulf between the players and the CSA board. Rightly or wrongly, the board was attempting to address what they perceived to be an imbalance in the demographics of our domestic cricket.

The players, on the other hand, served warning, arguing that the presence of one more black African player often weakened or unbalanced the side. Their view, that the chemistry of a professional sports team is not amenable to bean-counting or gerrymandering, is not a popular one. But it should not be dismissed forthwith.

One of the reasons domestic cricket this season had a lopsided, inconclusive feeling about it is because the system, for a variety of reasons, has been unable to produce that third black African cricketer of sufficient quality to hold down his place. Some franchises, such as the Lions, have fulfilled the quota with ease; others – the Cobras and, to a lesser extent the Eagles and the Titans – have struggled.

In a sense, therefore, the reports of the minister of sport and the Eminent Persons Group on transformation this week were right if one accepts that transformation isn’t producing black sportsmen and women in sufficient numbers. The problem, however, is systemic because the answer isn’t simply to be found at cricket or netball or rugby’s door.

The issue isn’t just a sporting one – it touches all facets of contemporary South Africa; it’s a social, cultural and historical one. To imply that there is a single answer to a complicated question is itself part of the problem.

Take swimming in South Africa, a sport mentioned by Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula on Monday only in passing, but an interesting case study in small-sport dynamics nonetheless. Swimming is a good example of all the challenges associated with South African sport because, on the one hand, the Chad le Clos showdown with Michael Phelps in Rio threatens to be the biggest story of the Games. There’s been needling and trash talk between the two going back years and the time when the two will have to back words with deeds is rapidly approaching.

On the other, given that South Africa has produced a superstar in Le Clos, it might surprise one to know that Swimming SA doesn’t have a sponsor. It can’t grow its sport without a sponsor and therefore won’t find itself on television. On the rare occasions that the association does find its way on to TV, this will probably not be on free-to-air but on SuperSport, the pay-per-view channel that dominates the broadcasting environment.

When your sport rarely finds its way on to TV in a form beyond the means of most South Africans, how is it going to grow? Swimming is not alone among the smaller sports in feeling becalmed.

Without money coming into the sport, the best that swimming can do is to, ahem, keep afloat. They certainly can’t build swimming pools in townships or disadvantaged areas because they don’t have that kind of money to spend.

This is where national and provincial budgets come in, for without the kind of heavy-handed social engineering akin to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, swimming pools aren’t going to be built in the numbers to cause a grass-roots revolution in the sport.

Swimming will chug along, its relatively untroubled but dormant waters enlivened every so often by the antics of Le Clos and Phelps as they fly towards flashbulbs and headlines. Then it will be forgotten, as it always is, until another Commonwealth or Olympics Games, with South African sport continuing to drift in its usual sleepy orbit on the edge of the international galaxy.

The stick with which Mbalula beat the federations earlier this week (as well as the threat to withdraw support and sponsorship) was that he took away their right to bid for the hosting of international events, which rugby are poised to do for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

There is something profoundly hollow in his intervention in that rugby might conceivably get its house in order before its bid for 2023 needs to be lodged in 2017, anyway, but another point or two is worth making.

The hosting of major international sporting events tends to galvanise grass-roots interest in a way that run-of-the-mill development programmes cannot match. The reason for this is simple: they inspire young athletes to chase their dreams in their home environment.

For Mbalula to prevent bidding for these events is, in a sense, a form of cutting off your nose to spite your face, an intervention remarkable only in its predictable short-sightedness.

The Australians, in hosting the 2000 Olympics, placed the Games as the jewels in a crown that featured the hosting of events around it, such as the Gay and Masters Games.

With Durban having been awarded hosting rights to the 2022 Commonwealth Games, we have an opportunity for 10 years’ worth of hosting events and tournaments, including, possibly, a later Olympics. Unfortunately, all the early signs are that the Commonwealth Games is going to be an event in a planning and strategic vacuum, as we now realise the 2010 World Cup was.

This suggests that the context in which the minister’s utterances earlier in the week really need to be seen is that of the all-too-familiar South African sporting pantomime, where villains and popular heroes undertake their slapstick routines to hysterical comment on social media.

Then we forget about the minister and those nasty, self-serving administrators until we move on to another Punch and Judy show – politics anyone, race perhaps? – for we do love our cheap fun here in the land of the endless pantomime.