23 May 2006
South African wheelchair racing athlete Ernst van Dyk won the Laureus Sportsperson of the Year Award for an athlete with a disability at a gala function in Barcelona on Monday.
The “Oscars of sport” are awarded annually, chosen by 42 sporting greats who make up the Laureus World Sports Academy.
Van Dyk won the title ahead of five other nominees: German swimmer Kirsten Bruhn; Hungarian fencer Zsuzsanna Krajnyak; Finland’s Leo-Pekka Tahti, a previous winner and also a wheelchair racer; wheelchair tennis player Esther Vergeer of the Netherlands; and Kenyan athlete Henry Wanyoike.
The award put the seal on a magnificent year for South Africa’s Disabled Sportman of the Year 2005. During the course of the year, he won the Boston Marathon wheelchair race for an unprecedented fifth year in succession, as well as the New York, Paris, Seoul and Oita Marathons.
He also showed himself to be versatile by winning the 400 and 800 metres in Atlanta’s Meet in the Heat.
In handcycling, he won the South African Championships, the Argus Cycle Tour, the EHC Circuit Race at Spijkernisse and the Saddlers Ultra Challenge in Alaska. He also finished runner-up at the European Championship road race and time trial.
Van Dyk holds the world record for the marathon. He became the first person in history to crack the magical one hour 20 minute barrier when he won the Boston Marathon in 2004.
He also represented South Africa as a swimmer at the Barcelona Paralympics way back in 1992.
Despite this, Van Dyk rates earning a degree in sports science from the University of Stellenbosch as his number one achievement, because it made him the first disabled sportsperson to graduate with it.
Van Dyk was born with congenital birth defects which resulted in him having a double amputation from the knee down.
SA’s sport laureates
Two other South Africans have won Laureus awards. The first, extreme adventurer Mike Horn, was named Laureus World Alternative Sportsperson of the Year in 2001.
Horn made history in 2000 by completing the landmark Latitude 0° project, making a solo circle of the globe at the Equator without the help of motor power – covering 8 400 kilometres on foot and mountain bike and 16 142 nautical miles by trimaran for a combined total of 40 000km.
Gary Player, one of the greatest golfers of all time and one of only five professionals to have won golf’s grand slam of all four major championships, became SA’s second Laureus award winner in 2003 when he was presented with a Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award.
And in 2004, disabled swimmer Natalie du Toit was a Laureus nominee in the Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability category.
Du Toit, whose left leg was amputated below the knee in 2001, holds disability world records for the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle, 100m butterfly and 200m individual medley.
Perhaps her greatest achievement, however, has been bridging the gap between able-bodied and disabled athletes.
At the 2003 All-Africa Games, competing against able-bodied swimmers, Du Toit won gold in the 800 metres freestyle. At the Afro-Asian Games in the same year, up against able-bodied swimmers once more, she took silver in the 800 metres freestyle and bronze in the 400 metres freestyle.
In the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, 18 years old at the time, she qualified for the 800 metres freestyle final – the first time in history that an athlete with disability had qualified for the final of an able-bodied event.
Laureus Sport for Good projects
The Laureus Sport for Good Foundation in South Africa is headed up by former Springbok rugby captain and Rugby World Cup winning manager Morne du Plessis. It is a proactive body that works in a funding and consultative capacity with other organisations.
In South Africa, the Foundation is involved in a number of projects, including the Helderberg Partnership Project in Cape Town, Starfish Sport in Gauteng, Playing for Peace in Kwazulu-Natal, Project Sozo in Paarl, and the Little Champs Academy in Gauteng.
The Helderberg Partnership Project, established in 1999, is a joint initiative of the Helderberg Sports Academy and Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse in Helderberg.
Children between 10 and 18 receive sports coaching at the Helderberg Sports Academy, irrespective of their ability to pay, while social workers use the opportunity to raise awareness of the problem of juvenile sexual abuse.
Playing for Peace’s focus is combating problems of racism and discord. The message of the project is: “Children who learn to play together can learn to live together.”
Philosophy of the Foundation
This fits in perfectly with the philosophy of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, which holds that people’s attitudes and prejudices can be changed by the power of sport.
Starfish Sport provides holistic care for children who are orphaned as a result of HIV/Aids, with Laureus taking responsibility, along with Discovery, for funding.
Project Sozo aims to counter problems of gangsterism in Paarl by providing children with an alternative source of excitement and stimulation by focusing their attention on sport.
The Little Champs Academy is a national project that began in 2000 to teach children from a young age basic sporting skills and at the same time improve their learning skills.
Du Plessis and Gary Player are members of the Laureus World Sports Academy, which includes some of the greatest sports personalities ever to grace the playing arenas of the world – among them Franz Beckenbauer, Sergey Bubka, Ian Botham, Sean Fitzpatrick, Miguel Indurain, Jack Nicklaus, Martina Navratilova, Edwin Moses, Jack Nicklaus, Tony Hawk, Dan Marino and Viv Richards.