Zero Worship

by The Editor

FEATURE: The manic adulation heaped unthinkingly on all our Olympians seems to have died down somewhat. And the events at Lonmin Mine adjusted our reaction to the endlessly repeated refrain that the Olympics ‘united’ us as a nation. So, perhaps now is as good a time as any to ask: did we really do that well at the Olympics? Is six medals the epitome of excellence or have we settled for mediocrity? In the article below, I argue South Africans seriously needs to readjust their expectations if we want to succeed and stop celebrating the average.

Zero Worship

By: Gareth van Onselen

22 August 2012

Few things better demonstrate just how deeply mired in mediocrity South Africa is than the response to our performance in the 2012 Summer Olympics. A population of 50 million; 112 athletes; 20 years of democracy; four years of preparation time; six medals – but our Olympians are heroes every one. Their performance, outstanding, excellence personified and their collective success, a triumph, to be celebrated and indulged. Or so we are told. What a sorry bunch of losers we are: low self esteem, therefore low expectations, and therefore low standards – a devastating combination.

Actually, we did only as well as we did in 2004. For eight years and over two Olympics we haven’t improved a jot. There is an argument to be made even the 2004 performance was below par. Certainly 2008 was a failure (one medal); and was widely described as such. Is five medals really the difference between excellence and failure? Is that how little we expect? And how much satisfies us? We targeted 12 medals (a distinctly mediocre goal for starters) and achieved only six. So even 50% is enough to send us into raptures. For shame.

And when did we set that goal? Has anyone thought about that? Not four years ago. No. Sascoc announced it on 21 July 2012. That was not an objective, it was a hope. Sascoc looked at the status quo and made a guess. Certainly it wasn’t the result of a four year plan with the appropriate resources behind it. That’s not how you pursue excellence. It’s how you suck eggs.

That attitude certainly explains why we accommodate, explain away and defend so much mediocrity when it comes to the public service. Our standards are so low we often can’t even identify excellence, let alone expect it.

Consider this: New Zealand (population 4.4 million, 185 athletes) managed 13 medals.

The athletes themselves make the case. None of them competed in the Olympics, sacrificed their time and effort, merely to feel good. They did it to win. Winning makes them feel good. It’s why they are professional sportspeople. They are competitive. It’s why they despair when they fail. Not us, the public, we cheer when they fail. “Well done!” we say, “just competing is what’s important.” Perhaps, if South Africa ever hosts the Olympics, we will do away with medals all together. Then everyone can just compete and feel good. Every one can be a winner.

Describing the reception given to our athletes at OR Tambo, the M&G wrote:

“’You are our heroes!’, ‘Well done Team SA!’ and ‘Thanks for the medals!’, read some of the boards held up by fans. “You have all done us so proud! You went over there and showed the world what South Africa was made of,” Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula told the assembled masses.”

He went on to say, “Sport is the only thing that unites us. You have given this country hope, you have united a nation.” Business Day Editor Peter Bruce has dealt expertly with this transparent platitude and how it detracts from proper, critical analysis. I shall say no more about it here.

Following Britain’s performance in 2008 Olympics and with an eye on London 2012, their high performance agency UK Sport received a budget of 100 million Pounds a year, in order that it might deliver the outcome they wanted. Their goal was not to compete, but to win. Significantly, UK Sport is modeled on the Australian Centre for Excellence, an academy which, at one stage, boasted a monetary allocation bigger than the country’s entire defence budget. By contrast, the Department of Sport gave Swimming South Africa around R1.7 million in 2011.

These countries understand what winning at the Olympics means. What it entails. Their expectations are high and their support higher still. Now, before everyone’s unites in the cry “we don’t have that much money, we are different, we have other priorities,” that is all good and right. But our expectations determine our spending priorities. Perhaps we don’t need a R600 million jet for the President or R40 million for a Sports Awards Ceremony? If we expect so little, all things being relative, then little we shall have.

And some codes, Hockey for example, have achieved minor miracles with next to nothing (see here for more). Yet that, understandably, plays with our expectations: we expect less.

Here is a counter-intuitive point: the Olympics cause us (South Africans) to lower our standards. Certainly there is something about the Olympics that makes people go all misty eyed. The Olympics is where nationalism and excellence meet; inevitably, for South Africa, the former wins out over the latter. If a national soccer coach fails or rugby player underperforms, we waste no time demanding their head. But in the Olympics, every one is a hero. Really? Was every one a hero? Did no one under perform? Fail to execute their plan properly? Or does that not matter? If not, why incentivize medals at all?

And this idea that the athletes are heroes? I wonder, has anyone ever taken a moment to define exactly what a hero is? It is a person who has achieved something exceptional at the risk of some personal injury or threat. Nelson Mandela is heroic. Second place in a sports tournament is not. Only one person in the Olympic team meets that standard, Oscar Pistorius. The others, as much as their effort is to be commended, do not. Unless every hardworking professional who puts in their best effort at work is a hero. If everyone is a hero, no one is a hero. And we rob our collective self of the ability to properly identify selflessness and exceptionalism alike.

And that’s thing about excellence. Its pursuit demands one identify what you are capable of and then adjusting your expectations accordingly. Are we capable of six medals? I, for one, think not. I think we are capable of so much more. And so I am disappointed by the result. Caster Semenya perhaps epitomises the problem. She ran a bad race. Yet, so guilty are we about the horrific abuse she suffered a few years ago, all and sundry patronizingly praised her every step. She could do no wrong. Second place was good enough. I wonder if second place was good enough for her? I doubt it. She is a professional athlete. She competes to win. If she is disappointed, why weren’t we?

And the conflation of individual ability and performance with our collective outlook is almost a pandemic. Every member of team South Africa gave their all, no doubt. Many, unable to achieve medals, achieved a personal best. That really is excellence in action. But that says nothing about our attitude to excellence or our expectations. We are not constrained by the performance of an individual doing their best. Nor are we limited by the collective performance of a team that did the best it could with what little it had. And neither prevents us from acknowledging success. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive.

We have the ability to think bigger. As the Department of Sport should do. We can expect more. And that is no reflection on those who represented us. We need not feel guilty about that. Indeed, I have no doubt, were our Olympic athletes offered more money, set higher goals, provided with greater support, they would be the first to welcome it, so deprived have they been of proper attention.

But, unless we do lift our standards and expectations, that will never happen. We will always be happy with six medals. We will remain a six medal nation with six medal expectations. The pursuit of excellence is not easy. It is a cruel business. But it is how we progress. And only we can determine by how much we wish to progress, by the standards we set. If our response to these Olympics is anything to go by, we are happy perpetually to wallow mid table. Average. Mediocre.

In conclusion, if we care so deeply about sport and sporting success, as we so obviously do, its time to focus that emotion on those responsible for our inertia. Government leaders are the first people to present a trophy, to sit in an executive box, to pontificate to us about how important sport is. When their words are not met by action, we excuse it all away by celebrating the scraps that come our way. If it’s more Chad le Clos moments we are after, it’s more of them we must demand. Time to show them what we really expect. Trust me, those most grateful will be the athletes themselves.

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