It was less than 10 years ago that a dejected South African Olympic team left Beijing with a solitary medal. Long jumper Khotso Mokoena had claimed just one silver and the nation was filled with self-doubt.
Roll on to 2017 and it’s a wildly different scenario. The attention of the athletics world has shifted to the bottom end of Africa, which suddenly seems to be producing some of the most exciting prospects in track and field. And Usain Bolt seems to have selected Wayde van Niekerk as his successor.
What many are now asking is: Where did this success come from?
By Tuesday night, South Africa were third on the World Championships medal table in London, behind Kenya and the United States, with several more podium chances still to come before Sunday.
In a country that has been plagued by blunders and administrative incompetence, it would be hard to believe that this rapid rise could be attributed to the federation that looks after the sport — Athletics South Africa.
For Jean Verster, the coach behind Olympic champion Caster Semenya, who has claimed 1 500m bronze in London and is a favourite for 800m gold, it has been more of a process than anything else.
“I think the reason we’re doing so well has been a process over the last decade. It’s some coaches and also some universities in general and some clubs that have really invested in coaching,” he said.
“I think it’s almost a case of success breeds success, in the sense some people started doing well and that motivated some other people to almost jump on the bandwagon.”
Success there has certainly been. At last year’s Olympic Games in Rio, South Africa picked up two golds and two silvers just in athletics. And so far in London, Wayde van Niekerk has gold in the 400m, Luvo Manyonga gold in the long jump — an event that had two South Africans on the podium, as Ruswahl Samaai took bronze — and Semenya took bronze in the 1 500m. Still to come, Van Niekerk will be gunning for 200m glory and, of course, Semenya for 800m gold.
For Seef le Roux, the technical leader of Team SA in London, belief plays a huge role in the success achieved so far.
“I think it’s got a lot to do with self-confidence and belief in yourself as an athlete and yourself as a coach. I think that’s the positive spin-off and the guys bouncing positive energy off each other. It started with Simon Magakwe running a sub-10 100m for the first time and then all of a sudden a lot of people started believing, if he can do it, so can we,” Le Roux said.
For sprinter Simbine, who finished fifth in the 100m final, that turning point wasn’t so much Magakwe’s sub-10 but Anaso Jobodwana’s bronze medal at the last World Championships in Beijing.
Simbine told London’s The Telegraph: “After that, it seemed everybody decided, if Anaso can do it, we also can do it. There was a shift in mind-set and self-belief.”
There is a definite positive vibe among the athletes, evidenced by their support for each other on and off the track, and this is spilling over to their results.
Verster maintains that international athletes coming to train in South Africa have also had an effect on the confidence of local athletes.
“There are a few other factors as well. I think one of them is also the fact that South African athletes, because they’re getting exposed to all these top athletes who flock to South Africa to train, and also in lots of cases run in local meetings, our athletes have slowly but surely started realising that those people also just have two legs and two arms.
“The coaches also learn from each other. We learn from international coaches. At the end of the day, I think it’s been a process rather than some instant success.”
That learning process is also something that happens on a regular basis at Pretoria’s High Performance Centre (HPC). As Le Roux pointed out: “I think we have got some good structures — not necessarily in terms of the federation but things like the HPC in Pretoria. They’re doing the right things. Grabbing the right guys at the right time, putting them through good systems and we’re seeing the results of that.
“That’s something we can still improve — we need the same sort of set-up in other parts of the country because the talent pool isn’t necessarily in one city,” he said, also pointing out the impressive level of coaching in the country.
For Manyonga’s coach, Neil Cornelius, the growth has come from a “local is lekker” approach. “One of the things that has changed is that we have stopped relying on outside factors to help with performance and started relying on the support staff-coaches, physios, athletics clubs, the athletes’ representatives, agents, psychologists, etcetera,” he said.
And, according to the young coach, there’s more to come from South African athletics, particularly after the country’s excellent showing in topping the medal table at the recent World Under-18 Championships in Nairobi. Granted, some of the larger nations didn’t make the trip to the Kenyan capital but it was an impressive result nevertheless.
“Talent identification has improved a lot as well,” Cornelius said. “There have been numerous projects to help identify talent in rural areas and pretty much all over South Africa. I have always said that we have some of most talented athletes in the world that just haven’t been discovered yet.
“Our crop of younger athletes coming up and giving amazing results are some of those that have been identified and put into an environment where there is a great support structure, professional coaches, doctors and physios,” he added.
That can surely only produce more positive results in the future.