Sports development in Southern Africa – the financial challenge

The process of transforming and developing the sporting landscape in Southern Africa is both simple and complex. It is a paradox in the sense that finances are needed but they are not the only prerequisite to development. Of course, money is needed to construct facilities, organise development programmes and run competitions.   

In this connection, many sport administrators and leaders have found a ready-made excuse for lack of planning as well as not being innovative and proactive in managing their sport development programmes. “Government has not provided the funds” is popular statement given for things not happening. However, the former President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), Dr. Donald Kaberuka begs to differ and rightly so.  He stated categorically that, “It is not money that delivers development. It is the policies that bring good return to that investment in addition to delivery capacity”.

With the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games now the focus of attention, sports officials are going to be jostling for accreditation and plane tickets to go to Japan. Political and sports leaders will be piling pressure on poorly prepared athletes to bring back medals from these games. These leaders choose to ignore the fact that winning a medal at the Olympics or World Championships is just the cherry on the cake.

There is a lot of hard work that goes into developing the athletes over a period of at least 8 to 10 years before they are able to compete with the best in the world.  Grassroots sport development is therefore the bedrock of success in the future.

Without exposing large numbers of youngsters to various sport disciplines, developing their skills and sustaining their interest, there is absolutely no way that Southern African countries are going to be winning medals at the Olympics.

South Africa and maybe one or two other countries, may win the odd medal but that is as good as it gets because in many countries there is no systematic identification and development of sporting talent.  Some countries may have nicely written development programmes and strategies but there is very little practical application on the ground.

There is therefore need to develop capacity in the form of mobilization of volunteers to develop sport in Southern African countries. Volunteers are the life-blood of sport all over the world. There is need to develop quality coaches and leaders through systematic training programmes.

These coaches and sports leaders also need to be respected and recognized for what they contribute.  They might not be paid lots of money but they are capable of delivering results beyond the wildest expectations of the political and sports leaders. To this end, there is need to foster a culture of excellence amongst all those involved in sport from grassroots to elite or high performance level.

According to the famous US Army General Colin Powell, “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not exception, it is a prevailing attitude.”

This is very true for sports development in Southern Africa. Southern African countries simply cannot expect to conquer the continent of Africa or the world for that matter, when the standard of sport in their countries and the region as a whole, is very poor. There are simply not enough junior competitions in the region to provide rigorous preparation for continental and world events.

This is very true for the most popular sport, football. Southern Africa does not have many Under 15 and Under 17 competitions to develop talent amongst boys and girls in football.  But this is where the stars are born and prepared. There is need to increase these age group tournaments to ensure that there is fierce competition at national and regional level   before venturing into the continent as well as world competitions.

Southern African countries have not yet won the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Under 17 and Under 20 competitions. It is therefore naïve to expect them to perform consistently at the Africa Cup of Nations.  The victories of South Africa in 1996 and Zambia in 2012 in this competition were more of luck, individual flair and talent rather than as a result of well-executed development programmes.

Spain has been able to dominate European and world football recently due to its well-developed junior development programmes and club structures. Brazil has been a dominant force in world football because the passion for the game and a culture of excellence exist at levels from grassroots to elite.

The same applies to Ethiopia and Kenya for middle and long distance running as well as sprint athletics in Jamaica. It is not just a question of money but utilizing available resources and even the local terrain of mountains in the case of Ethiopia and Kenya.

Southern Africa is faced with numerous economic and human development challenges. It is naïve and wrong for sports leaders to expect that governments will bank-roll sport development programmes. Education, health, energy, transport and other sectors need colossal amounts of resources in order to develop infrastructure that will help transform the lives of the people. Sport will never be a priority on the national and regional development agendas.

That does not mean it is not important. It simply means that innovative ways must be found to finance sport development. That is the responsibility of national sports authorities and regional bodies such as the Confederation of Southern African Olympic Committees (COSANOC) and the African Union Sports Council (AUSC) Region 5. Southern Africa has abundant sporting talent which needs to be properly harnessed. The future is indeed very bright!

September 2017
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