Team SA prepares to shine at Commonwealth Games

Boxer Phatiswa Thingana being wished well by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Image: SASCOC)

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Phatiswa Thingana tugs nervously at the striped scarf at her neck as she shrinks back into the wall. It’s the farewell gala dinner for Team South Africa as they head to the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and Thingana, the only woman on the boxing team, is trying to avoid the media attention.

She speaks better with her fists Thingana shyly admits, as she dodges and dances away from questions. Thingana has a quiet, intense demeanour; she chooses her words thoughtfully. Still, her dark eyes, warily scanning the crowd for an escape, are warm and animated.

“People keep asking me who I see as my biggest challenge and I keep reminding them; ‘No one knows me, I am a surprise’. Other boxers need to be concerned about meeting me.” Confidence drips from every syllable.

Even though her jacket pulls snugly around her powerful shoulders it is not easy to think of Thingana as a boxer. A runner perhaps, even a swimmer, but she admits that most people are surprised when she tells them she is a boxer. She saves the focused aggression, a hallmark of the sport, for the ring.

“Boxing is a way up; all you need is gloves and shorts, but I train hard. And now I am about to take a plane to the other side of the world. This is not something I dreamed of; it is my reward for working hard.”

Developing South Africa’s sporting talent

Thingana is part of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) and the Ministry of Sports and Recreation’s trumpeted youth development initiative. The talented boxer is one of the younger sporting heroes being groomed for future success at the pinnacle of competition, the Olympics. The hope is that by the time of the next Olympics, Rio 2016, South Africa will have a bigger, stronger and more seasoned pool of athletes to choose from.

This podium excellence programme is a pet project of Gideon Sam, SASCOC’s president. He believes that South Africa can only build on its haul of six medals from the London Olympics if more emphasis is placed on developing young athletes. “This is important because we want to be competitive; we cannot pay lip service to development of sport. We believe that this exposure to competition will make them ready to fight for a place in the Olympic team. After Glasgow they will be older, more experienced, stronger and better.”

Sam was speaking at the farewell dinner for the young members of Team SA as they prepared for their departure to Glasgow. Against the backdrop of Sam’s confidence is a roomful of young kids taking selfies and posting them onto social media platforms, a reminder that, for all their precocious talent, the vast majority of this team remain children.

“We want them to test themselves against the best of their peers; these Games will aid their development by giving them experience away from home in an elite environment.”

The idea that young talented athletes are forged and hardened in the heat of competition is already bearing fruit. A few of the junior athletes in Glasgow have already competed at the African Youth Games in Botswana, bringing home 92 medals.

“We have set a target of 40 medals [at the Commonwealth Games], and we want at least 15 gold. You can have all the medals, but if you don’t have gold medals you just don’t feature on the medal table,” Sam explained. Infected by his youthful team’s confidence, Sam continues; “I don’t think I have seen a higher confidence level than I have seen today. It is a good sign for us that we are ready for a good one.”

The Commonwealth Games, for SASCOC and the minister of sport and recreation, Fikile Mbalula, is a stepping stone to Olympic glory. It is the opportunity for South Africa’s youngest hopefuls to show that they have the spine to compete. Sam points out that giving the youth their head bears fruit

At the farewell dinner Minister Mbalula restated the thinking behind the team’s make-up. The country cannot afford the vast sums of money other countries can to fund every promising athlete it produces. “Excellence in sport is in the DNA of this country but we need to look for different, innovative ways to give our best and most promising athletes exposure to strong competition.”

Mbalula can easily be called a sorting missionary. He believes strongly in the nation-building benefits of sport and has positioned his ministry at the frontline of social change. Sport, he has often said, teaches focus and teamwork; attributes that will help to build a stronger, more equitable nation.

It is, in the words of Mbalula, their opportunity to earn the chance to wear the country’s colours in Rio. “Work hard and return with medals. We may not give you a house but we will give you our hearts. We will give you our respect. Know that you are shaping our identity; when you do well it reflects on us.”

After the fireworks and karaoke choruses at the Games’s opening ceremony, and once Sevens’s rugby star Cecil Afrika has led Team SA around Celtic Park, Thingana and her team mates will get their chance to shine.