Look in the mirror, Mr Mthethwa - News24

12 August 2021 - South Africa’s team at the Olympic Games is not demographically representative. So laments the minister of sport, Nathi Mthethwa.

Marius Roodt 

South Africa’s team at the Olympic Games is not demographically representative. So laments the minister of sport, Nathi Mthethwa. 

Beyond the minister’s crass race essentialism, there are several issues to be pointed out here. Firstly, much of the blame for the racial makeup of the team, which Mthethwa so laments can be laid at the door of his government and, secondly, few South Africans care about the skin colour of those representing the country in Tokyo.

The minister can speak about how the various sports federations are failing to meet 'transformation' criteria, but the fact of the matter is that too many children in this country simply do not have the opportunity even to play sport, never mind have a realistic chance to compete in an elite competition like the Olympic Games.

According to the Department of Basic Education, just over 1 000 of South Africa’s 37 190 state schools have facilities for athletics. Fewer than 600 have swimming facilities. Only 750 have a place where children can play hockey. And the figures for other sports such as cricket, rugby, and soccer are not much better (less than a quarter of South African schools have a soccer field). 

No facilities 

How can a person hope to even think of going to the Olympics one day (or playing any other sport at a high level) when there are no facilities available? And let us not forget that having access to such facilities alone would children the opportunity to participate. There also need to be teachers who give up their time to arrange fixtures against other schools, to manage teams, and so on – without these volunteers, facilities will stand empty.

And, furthermore, to play any sport at a high level, one needs, over and above some level of God-given talent, professional coaching from a relatively young age to reach one’s potential. And this is simply out of reach for most schools, including former whites-only or Model C schools.

But let’s also remember that playing sport for its own sake is an end in itself. Playing sport has many benefits for people (not only the young), ranging from the physical and fitness aspects to the friendships built on sports fields to the life lessons success and defeat in the sporting arena teach one. And to the greatest extent possible those who want to participate in a certain sport should be allowed to do so, even if (perhaps especially if) their only reason is to participate for the love of the game itself. Sport is possibly the simplest explanation of equality of opportunity versus the quality of outcome – not everyone will be a sprinter at the Olympics but everyone who wants the opportunity to participate in athletics (or any other sport) should have a chance to do so. But Nathi Mthethwa and his government simply do not provide these opportunities for the vast majority of people.

At the same time, sporting success, especially in the Olympics, is correlated with a country’s economic clout. The bigger a country’s economy, the more successful it will be at the quadrennial Games. 

Grow the economy 

If Mthethwa wants a more representative and successful Olympic side, his government should implement policies that enable the South African economy to grow rather than those that hobble it.

Furthermore, the government must support athletes. The success of Australia and the United Kingdom over the past few decades was because of a conscious decision to support and fund their athletes. Australia established its Institute of Sport following the 1976 Montreal Games (where it won only five medals), and the success has played out subsequently; Australia is now an Olympic superpower, especially given the size of its population. The United Kingdom has seen similar success after its government began investing significantly in Olympic sports.

And unlike racial diktats the government can enforce on national sports teams, pressuring them to make sure their sides have a certain racial makeup, this cannot be done in the Olympics. Athletes need to qualify for the sporting jamboree, and the government cannot simply say that a certain proportion of the Olympic side must be of a particular race.

If the minister wants our Olympic team to reflect the country’s demographics (whatever that means in practice), instead of indignantly complaining that the side is ‘untransformed’, he must work to ensure that people living in all communities around the country have access to facilities and coaching, and that those who show promise are given the support they need to represent South Africa.

Of course, the various sporting federations also have a role to play in ensuring that all those who want to play their sport can do so, but government support is critical. 

In any event, it is an open question whether ordinary South Africans are all that concerned about the racial makeup of their representative teams.

More diverse teams 

Research conducted by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) found that most South Africans believed that national sports teams should be selected solely on merit, with no thought given to demographic representivity, including a slight majority of black respondents. That said, teams such as the Proteas and Springboks, which white players in the past often dominated, are increasingly diverse. And while the Proteas have not had it all their own way in recent times, the Springboks are the best team globally and have just completed a series win over the British and Irish Lions.

And only the most mean-spirited race nationalist in the country would not have basked in the reflected glory of being a South Africa at seeing Tatjana Schoenmaker win gold and break the world record in the 200m breaststroke in the Olympics. By the same token, only the most unreconstructed white racist would not have felt disappointed when Akani Simbine missed out on a medal in the 100m sprint by the barest of margins.

Mr Mthethwa needs to make sure the government of which he is part works to ensure that everybody who wants to play sport has the opportunity to do so – until this happens the government will remain part of the problem, hampering South African sports, rather than being part of the solution. This needs to change.

- Marius Roodt is a writer and senior analyst at the Institute of Race Relations.