South Africa is blessed with an abundance of young sporting talent. But it’s going to take more than potential to represent the country at the highest levels.
Whether it’s soccer, rugby, swimming, wrestling or even sailing – we have plenty of youngsters competing in most sporting codes at national and international level. All of them have dreams of representing South Africa as a senior athlete one day, but the reality is that not all of them will.
So who or what determines the fate of these teenage hopefuls? The respective sporting bodies have a crucial role to play in terms of providing the necessary tournament opportunities for experience and the needed financial backing, whether it’s internal funding or sponsorship dependent, for training and travel. However, the buck doesn’t stop there.
The athletes (yes, I’m speaking to you) have the duty to not only fulfill their potential, but to show the right attitude and commitment to learn, grow and excel. They also have the control to make their own career choices, which sets their path for their futures.
I’ll give you an example of a youngster who won’t make it. I had an interview with one of our top fighters at the recent World Junior Judo Championship held in Cape Town – the first international judo competition hosted by South Africa. Being one of our more talented judo prospects, he complained about the lack of opportunities and sponsorships and praised the experience he gained at the tournament. He also believed he was passionate about the sport and suggested several solutions on how South African judo can one day compete with the best in the world.
I then asked him about the chance of representing South Africa at the 2016 Rio Games. ‘Yeah, it’s a dream, but I don’t know,’ he responded pessimistically to my surprise. ‘I want to finish school and study, I guess that’s my priority.’
With that kind of attitude, what company will want to invest in you? Sponsors want success, but also clients who want to make a difference in their field. You can argue he’s being a realist – but it takes ambition and desire to make your dreams come true.
One youngster who has done so and is reaping the benefits is swimming sensation Chad le Clos. While some will say that talent like his doesn’t come everyday, the fact is that his will to be the best was the telling factor in his rise that peaked from 2010.
His coach Graham Hill recalls: ‘What makes Chad special is his attitude and commitment, which I first saw at one of his junior competitions. It was a cold, rainy evening in Johannesburg and there was one final race left. Most of those swimmers were tired after a long day and didn’t want to swim in the unpleasant conditions. But Chad didn’t complain. He wanted to compete and was hungry to win. That’s the kind of attitude swimmers need to have if they want to be successful.’
A then 17-year-old Le Clos was disappointed with his armful of medals (one gold, three silver and one bronze) picked up at the Youth Games in Singapore last year. ‘I could’ve won more gold,’ he told me before the Commonwealth Games. That determination saw him win five medals (two gold) in Delhi.
In 2011, he won seven medals (six gold) at the All Africa Games and has collected 22 gold medals during the current World Cup series, as well as six silvers and two bronzes. He also beat 2008 American Olympic hero Michael Phelps in Moscow.
Another young role model to look up to is soccer wunderkind Thulani Serero, who made a bold decision as a 14-year-old to leave SuperSport United’s junior ranks and focus on his development at Ajax Cape Town. He left his family and life behind in Soweto to focus on his dream in a city relatively unknown to him. Seven years later, he finds himself with a contract at one of Europe’s top clubs Ajax Amsterdam.
Those two young guns are likely to represent South Africa at the Olympics next year, but London will be a step too soon for many other youngsters. Their time will come at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh and the 2016 Rio Games.
While our sporting administrators will have an important role in guiding these juniors to national selection, the athletes have to realise that they have to earn the right to don the green and gold of South Africa. And it takes the attitude of Le Clos and the sacrifices of Serero to get there.
Their destiny lies in their hands.