Project 2020-Tokyo Olympics: Striving for Excellence in Elite Sport

The Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games will be returning to Asia in 2020. Obviously, the expectation is that Southern African countries will continue to improve in terms of the performances of their athletes and teams at this level of competition. 

Now, before performances at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro have even been registered, it is difficult to project or have a baseline data of judging the athletes and teams. However, one thing is certain.  It is too late to effect any changes that will cause dramatic improvements for the games in 2016.

Athletes and teams that will succeed at these games have already been preparing for a long time. As sport science, through the Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model posits, it takes 8 to 10 years to produce a world champion in any sport. World-class competitors are not produced overnight. Winning at this level of competition is not by some stroke of luck or good fortune, it is a result of hard slogging work. 

It is blood, sweat and tears. It is not cheap and can no longer be undertaken on shoe-string budgets anymore. 

 This calls for investment of both human and financial capital to get the desired results.

There is need for various Southern African countries to increase the number of athletes moving through organised sport into pre-elite level competition. 

In addition, the national sports authorities, that is the statutory authorities   and National Olympic Committees (NOCs) have to facilitate the pathways for athletes and teams to progress from pre-elite to elite level and maximise the numbers making that transition.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics provide a useful platform for performance and a focus for medium to long term planning in high performance sport.

 This major event is a wonderful opportunity to show over time a sustained improvement in results at the elite level across a growing number of sport codes thereby motivating more young people to be more active and participate in sport. 

The time for diversifying the range of sport codes that Southern Africans compete in is now. Instead of competing in the traditional track and field athletics as well as boxing, the scope of involvement at the Olympic Games should be improved.

 This can be done by providing athletes with enhanced access to the best coaching, sport science and sports medicine available.

Amongst the three afore-mentioned performance variables, the critical requirement is coaching.  

In order for Southern African athletes to improve their performances at major games such as world championships, there is need for investment in transforming the calibre and professionalisation of coaching in the region.  

There is too much focus on actual competition such as leagues and tournaments and very little attention is paid to real development issues such as coaching development.

The focus on coaching development requires individual countries and the region as whole to explore other opportunities for funding in order to obtain the resources required for wholesale improvement in coaching. Of course, Africa and Southern Africa in particular, cannot compete with other regions in terms of investments in coach education training but the fact remains that even with the limited resources at their disposal, major improvements are needed in coaching. Furthermore, the vocation of coaching needs to be respected more. 

The tendency amongst sports authorities of chopping and changing coaches at the drop of a hat must be stopped.

It seems like sports leaders are always trigger-happy and fire coaches at the slightest indication of a drop in performance levels or failure. 

In the run-up to the 2016 and 2020 editions of the Olympics, efforts must be made to ensure that the plight of coaches is improved by being provided with secure contracts to enable them to perform better.  

Without being accorded security of tenure and respect, amongst other support services, it will be very difficult for African coaches to play influential roles in the performances of athletes just like their counterparts in other parts of the world. 

Private sector funding for the preparations for the 2020 Olympics is also an imperative for virtually every country. 

Without private sector involvement to complement Olympic Solidarity support and public funding for the 2020  project,  any dramatic improvement in athlete performances will be by chance  and not by design. 

The Tokyo Olympics will be an important milestone and sign-post of how meticulous and NOCs and sports authorities are in terms planning. 

Winning the odd bronze or silver is not going to be enough, there is need for Southern Africans to offer genuine competition for gold in a wide range of sport codes. 

In addition to the call for better performances, there has been talk of African cities and in particular, Durban, bidding to host the Summer Olympic Games post 2020. 

However, the 2020 Games themselves, will provide good performance indicators of whether it is really worth it for Africa to host games of this magnitude. 

It is not just about being wonderful and gracious hosts but if Africa has to play host to the Olympic Games, performance levels must also improve to justify this colossal investment of financial resources.

High performance sport has significant social and economic benefits for the Southern African region and indeed other parts of the world. It has the potential to transform the region through generation of wealth and employment. 

However, there is need for overhauling of administrative structures of national and regional sport. 

Organisations such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) which are supposed to be champions of regional integration should contribute to this process of transformation. 

There is growing realisation that the old approaches and administrative structures have served their time and that while they may have contributed to modest achievements in the past, new as well as dynamic and more responsive structures are now urgently needed. There is need for a paradigm shift. 

Of course, the primary source of greatness in sport remains the athletes themselves who put their bodies on the line to achieve the ultimate prize in sport but the supporting infrastructure behind them must also be as professional and results- orientated as they are.

Project 2020 for the Tokyo Olympics is an opportunity for Southern Africa to ensure that international best practice is adopted in financing and development of elite sport. Greatness and success beckon but they must be planned for to ensure that the region’s athletes and teams continue to make history. As the wise elders have said, “Failing to plan is planning to fail!”  The Southern Times Sports Forum can only agree. The region must innovate or stagnate!

April 2014
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