On shit-deflecting umbrellas, high performance sport and Sunette Viljoen

29 Aug 2016 Posted by

Dear Sunette

We’ve never had the pleasure of meeting, but I am writing this letter to congratulate you.  I am sure that after your Olympic silver medal you have been inundated with praise and congratulations from thousands of South Africans, and you may add mine to that list.

However, what I really want to congratulate you for is your courageous stance against the mismanagement of high performance sport in SA, and the consequent disadvantage it puts our most talented athletes at.  You have become SASCOC’s biggest nightmare – someone brave enough to be outspoken and truthful, but too good for them to ignore, drop, shun and silence.

Now, I don’t wish to trivialize your Olympic silver medal, but I think this achievement may go down in history as even more meritorious, because a) it says so much about your character (not that bouncing back from the agony of finishing 4th in London didn’t, mind you), and b) it may just help more South African athletes.

I know from my own experience just how much courage it takes to speak up against the system.  I know the consequence is to become an outcast, someone they say “Doesn’t co-operate”.  Is ungrateful. Arrogant.  Greedy.  In my case, being critical was a career-limiting move.  For others, it’s worse – for instance, consider Graeme Joffe, a journalist who left South Africa because he faced death threats for trying to expose their incompetence and corruption.  These people do not play nicely when threatened.

I have seen that similar accusations have been levelled against you over the last week. People have said you should just be grateful for what you have, and also that you should be looking to corporate SA to help, not government.

Two things about that.  First, I am sure that you are very grateful.  It’s possible to be grateful for what one has, and still justifiably frustrated when what you need and are promised never arrives.  I’d go even further to add that the people who criticise are often the most patriotic, the ones who want to realise potential, to help others, to lift the system, change it for the better.  I think you’re that person, Sunette.

Second, I’d bet that if you headed down to a local shopping mall, you could ask 100 South Africans to name five of our Olympic rowers, or track and field athletes, and I’d be surprised if ten of the 100 could.

But we both know that 90 out of 100 ordinary South Africans could name five Springboks or Proteas.  The sports pages of our newspapers are dominated by three sports. And that’s what sponsors care about – exposure, awareness, ROI.  So no, while any corporate support is great, I think that people don’t understand the corporate sponsor-athlete relationship, and it is right that government help Olympic athletes to excel – this is how it works all over the world.

So I hope you will continue to be so courageous, because I think you’re absolutely right – our sports administrators fail our athletes through the gross mismanagement of high performance sport in South Africa.

I saw a Steve Jobs quote once, where he said that his job was simple:  Hire the best software developers and engineers, and then be a giant shit-deflecting umbrella to allow them to work without worrying about the shit that we all know gets in the way.

I think the same principle applies to elite sport.  High performance sports systems should identify the best athletes, then “hire” the best coaches and support staff, and then “protect” that partnership from all the barriers, challenges and obstacles in their way.

Their role is to facilitate excellence. I think you understand this, Sunette, and what you voiced over the last year, especially last week, is the reality that South African athletes do not receive this ‘protection’.  Instead, we play a “Hunger Games” – every athlete for themselves, surviving in a world where one person’s gain is another’s loss.  I know the kinds of things you’ve had to do just to scrape out financial support from SASCOC, the hoops you jump through, the burden of administration.  Your job is to throw a javelin, but they make you and your support staff run a business begging for pennies.  While they spend the dollars.

For these reasons – myopia, incompetence, personal agendas – we routinely fail to set up collaborative systems, sharing of ideas, and most important of all, we never create aspirational environments for present and future athletes.

And I know that you are not alone, Sunette.  Just this week, I interacted with three other athletes who share your frustration.  They are all justified.  One athlete had to sell a phone given to him by Olympic sponsors just to pay his bills.  I know one who was receiving small funding, then got injured, and found his funding pulled.  At the very moment it was needed most.

That’s not protection.  It’s exploitation, because you know that the funding for business class tickets and other perks by the custodians of the money is never going to be threatened.  It’s the athletes who are thrown overboard first, while other athletes have to do the work of actually rowing a boat overloaded with passengers.

And is there not something fundamentally wrong, tragic about that?  So keep going Sunette, and to all the other athletes out there, and to the media, be emboldened by this brave athlete.  I don’t know about corruption and embezzling of money, but if there’s a hint of it, then find it.  All I am saying is that we can be, should be, so much better.  Change demands courage and cohesion.

Yours in the spirit of sports performance, not politics


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