There were a handful of journalists standing in the mixed zone at the Olympic aquatic centre, all looking to speak to Chad le Clos.
As usual, there was a scrum for position to get a few words with a swimmer filing thorough from the pool to the warm down facility. One swimmer after another walked past, water dripping from their body, stomach muscles visibly still contracting.
Le Clos was, understandably, the man many were interested in. Particularly after he hadn’t spoken to the media following a 200m butterfly final that he later described “the worst performance of my career”.
‘There goes greatness,’ I said to a colleague. They didn’t quite get what I was saying. ‘Michael Phelps. He’s just walked past.’ In that frenetic atmosphere of the mixed zone, the greatest swimmer the sport has ever seen – he has now finished with 23 Olympic golds and 28 Olympic medals to argue his case – had slipped past unnoticed.
And that’s the beauty of the Olympics, and it also says something about the lack of an Olympic culture in South Africa. That is in no way a criticism of hard-working colleagues, it’s simply an observation of the country in which we live.
I’m willing to bet that if long lump silver medallist Luvo Manyonga walks down any main street in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth or Bloemfontein he will go unnoticed. If Bryan Habana did the same thing there’d be plenty of people pointing at him in recognition.
South Africans judge their sporting success and mental well-being on how well their sporting teams fare, and by that I’m particularly referring to soccer, rugby and cricket. On the Saturday, the morning after the Rio Olympics had got under way, the official Team South Africa Facebook site and its other social media platforms were quiet by its standards. The reason: the Lions were playing the Hurricanes in the Super Rugby final.
Once that match was over and the post-mortems on the game had been conducted, South Africans switched into Olympic mode. And for two weeks the Olympics holds centre stage. Caster Semenya will be this week’s big story – I think she’ll be the biggest international story of the Games as well – and conversation will turn to her and how many medals South Africa has earned in Rio.
This time next week, interest will start to wane and by two weeks time the Olympics will already be a fast-fading memory for many. It’s simply because there isn’t a real Olympic culture in South Africa and until Corporate South Africa comes to the table and helps fund the federations and codes the Olympics is going to remain an event that catches the nation’s attention for a fortnight every four years.
That’s the saddest part. The rowers, for example, qualified – under the strictest qualification standards – five boats for Rio. That’s three more than London 2012, where they won a gold medal. All five boats in 2016 reached the ‘A’ final and they brought back one silver, while had a couple of fourth-placed finishes. In terms of a conversion rate from qualifying to reaching a final, there’s was 100 percent. What other sport can point to such a staggering statistic?
And, the reality is that rowing is desperately struggling for funding and has to rely on handouts to help keep the world-class programmes going. Where is Corporate South Africa? Only too happy to throw money at soccer, rugby and cricket, they largely ignore the sports that provide so much pleasure and ubunthu once every four years.
Every year people contribute 67 minutes to Mandela Day and every year you hear people say, ‘every day should be Mandela Day’. But it’s not, even though it should be. Similarly, the Olympics shouldn’t be an event that comes round once every four years, it should be an ongoing process.
Rugby Sevens made its debut at Rio 2016 and it caught on like wildfire. In fact, Sevens is in ‘danger’ of becoming to rugby what T20 is to cricket – and if you look at cricket as an example, that’s not necessarily a good thing for the longer version of the game. Just look at dwindling TV and live gate attendances in this year’s 15-man Super Rugby. The apologists will blame the flawed format, I tend to think that in this day and age 15-man rugby, week-in and week-out, is losing its appeal. Sure, there will always be the Springboks, but the the Blitzboks are making inroads on the brand.
The Olympics is an incredible coming together or sportsmen and women and it genuinely unites warring countries and creates lasting friendships. South Africa will probably return from Rio with their best-ever post-isolation medals return (six is the clubhouse leader). But, for a country which claims to be ‘sports mad’, the funding and support should be there for 20 medals to be the benchmark. And that requires Corporate South Africa to help fund the sacrifices that would see us produce Olympic legends.