Better luck next time

Khanyi Magubane

Twelve-year-old Themba has a dream. He dreams about making it into his school’s football team. It would be his entry into the world of the sport, and lead him to his other dream, to be just like his hero, South African football legend Lucas Radebe.

He asks his dad to help him to achieve his dream. Every day they practise in the backyard. His father records football matches and teaches him the finer points of playing the game well. After several weeks of practice, his father is convinced his son is ready for the football trials, where the football coach at his son’s school will pick the team.

Themba and his father show up bright and early on a Saturday morning at the school’s football ground, prepared and proud. Other parents are there too, to support their children.

The moment of truth arrives. All the hopefuls are put through a series of tests, kicking the ball, sprinting and playing mock matches. The head coach and his assistants watch closely, scribbling in their notebooks. Themba gives it his all. He kicks with all his might, he runs faster than he ever has before. The other boys are just as strong, if not stronger, but he is hopeful. This is after all, his dream.

The coach and his helpers then withdraw to confer. Half an hour later they call the boys back to the field. The head coach gives a little speech before announcing the successful candidates.

He tells them what a difficult decision it was to pick the final 16 players as all of them had displayed “a great amount of courage and enthusiasm”. But at the end of the day, a choice must be made.

As the names of the successful players are called, they step forward. Themba’s heart is beating fast. He glances over to the stands where his father is sitting. Dad gives him the two thumbs up and is beaming from ear to ear.

With each name called, Themba is certain the next will be his. Then his excitement starts turning to doubt. Maybe, just maybe, he didn’t cut it. His worst fears are realised when the 16th name is called. An overwhelming mixture of anger and disappointment comes over Themba. This time, he find is difficult to look at his father.

His dad is crushed for his son. How could this be? He watched Themba give it his all, he worked so hard, what went wrong? “This is a travesty of justice,” Themba’s father says. He was going to fix this once and for all.

He stomps onto the field and heads directly for the head coach. Accustomed to this behaviour from irate parents, the coach is calm. He explains that Themba was not as strong or as fast as the other kids. “Better luck next time,” he says.

On the way back home, Themba’s dad tries to encourage his son. He tells him the coach made a wrong decision, that he knows nothing about football. Themba tries to hide his disappointment, but he’s clearly broken.

But he is consoled that his father has so much faith in him. Silently, in that moment, he decides that next year he’s going to try again. He is going to make his father, and Lucas Radebe, proud of him.

For me, Themba’s story represents the story of Team South Africa at the Beijing Olympics. There is no doubt that this was by far our worst performance, and much has been said about the lack of adequate funding and training. I’ve heard of all and, in essence, I agree.

But the brutality of South Africans’ criticism of the 131 sports men and women who entered the Bird’s Nest Stadium at the spectacular opening ceremony leaves me gaping.

I imagine them, one after another, losing to stronger, faster and more agile athletes from other parts of the world. And I have to ask, where were the words that every Themba wanted to hear? Who clapped for them when they entered through the arrivals gates at the airport? Told them, “Better luck next time”?

This support may have been difficult, given how dismally our athletes were shown up by astonishing record-breakers such as Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and American swimmer Michael Phelps. They were the glory boys, they broke all the records, and I congratulate them wholeheartedly.

What many people don’t know is that a leg injury eliminated Bolt from the first round of the 200m heats at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Four years later he was back, with far better luck: he broke the world record in the same track event, at 19.30 seconds – the fastest time in history.

Phelps, whose eight medals are the most ever won at an Olympic tournament, also knows what it feels like to walk away with only a bronze, with nobody noticing.

So I feel encouraged that our athletes still have great prospects ahead of them at future Olympic Games. I’m proud of each and every man and woman who qualified for that world stage. I am proud, because representing your country is an honour. I salute them, even with just the one silver medal that long-jumper Khotso Mokoena brought home; I salute each and every one of them. The road leading to the London 2012 Olympics is not that long, and I can’t wait to see Team South Africa make South Africa eat humble pie.

Khanyi Magubane is a journalist, published poet, radio broadcaster and fiction writer. She writes for MediaClubSouth Africa, and brings with her an eclectic mix of media experience. She’s worked as a radio journalist for stations including Talk Radio &702 and the youth station YFM, where she was also a news anchor. She’s been a contributing features writer in a number of magazines titles including O magazine and Y mag. She’s also a book reviewer and literary essayist, published in the literary journal Wordsetc. Magubane is also a radio presenter at SAfm, where she hosts a Sunday show. She’s currently also in the process of completing the manuscript of her first novel, an extract of which has been published in Wordsetc.