Helping SA’s Olympic hopefuls

5 January 2004

The National Olympic Committee of South Africa’s (Nocsa’s) Operation Excellence (Opex) is helping South Africa’s top athletes in their quest for Olympic success. The programme is aimed at turning potential and talent into Olympic medals, and although other countries have far greater financial resources, Opex is proving to be a great success.

The price of Olympic success is huge. In fact, it cost Australia about 150-million Australian dollars to prepare their team for the Sydney Games, while the United States Olympic team banks on an annual budget of around $117-million in sponsorship revenue alone.

These are massive investments by countries bent on world sporting domination, and which are obviously paying handsome dividends. South Africa is hardly sitting on a similar pot of gold at the end of its Olympic rainbow.

“Our program is driven to the extent that it must try and support our athletes as much as possible in the various aspects of preparing for success in the greatest sporting event on the planet”, says Nocsa CEO Lyndon Barends.

The programme was launched in 1994 as part of the build-up to the 1996 Atlanta Games. It consists of three categories of athletes who are targeted by Nocsa for assistance leading up to the various Games.

The first category focuses on athletes ranked within the top eight in the world in their respective disciplines, and who have a proven record of winning medals at world championships.

Category two targets athletes between nine and 16 in the world, and who have achieved finalist or top eight positions at a world championship.

The third category is labelled “Development” and focuses on athletes with a world ranking of between 17 and 24 and who have won medals in continental championships. It also looks at fast-tracking athletes with potential, particularly those of colour.

The athletes of all three categories are continually assessed on their performances in the last year of participation.

“Opex provides the athletes with an annual grant to cover their basic costs”, says Tubby Reddy, Head of Nocsa’s High Performance Department.

“It’s not a huge amount, but it helps to meet the expenses of training, travel and coaching. For example, just recently our canoeists were competing in canoes that the rest of the world considered to be out of date. Now it’s a question of assisting them with the best canoes.

“We also assist the athletes with scientific and medical testing regarding their fitness and injuries. Opex paid for high jumper Jacques Freitag to have surgery on his ankles, and he’s back competing again as the world number one.

“Then there are grants for our athletes to participate internationally, so we can test and monitor progress, and the funding of training camps.”

Nocsa has also instituted an Olympic Careers Opportunity Programme to help athletes find employment with companies who will be sympathetic to their needs for time off to train and compete.

Then there’s Investment in Excellence, a programme designed to help athletes develop the life skills necessary for success at such a high level.

“Lots of time is spent on physical preparation, but very little on mental preparation”, says Barends. “We would like to get the balance right. Psychological preparation and mental toughness is often the difference between a medal and no medal.”

But it’s all heavily dependent on adequate financing. South Africa spent R18-million on its Olympic preparations for Sydney, which had to be spread across 80 to 100 athletes. Nocsa will be spending approximately R50-million on its Olympic team leading up to Athens 2004.

“It’s a constant process of trying to juggle the purse strings and see how best we can help our medal hopefuls without weakening our support of our other athletes”, says Barends.

But the results continue to reflect in names such as Freitag, Van Zyl, Penny Heyns, Josiah Thugwane, Hezekiel Sepeng, Marianne Kriel, Hestrie Cloete, Frantz Kruger and many of the country’s Olympic successes.

Source: National Olympic Committee of South Africa

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