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Mon Apr 21 14:10:42 SAST 2014

Uncertainty is source of SA Olympic failure

Ross Tucker | 04 July, 2012 07:040 Comments

TWELVE medals. This is the target set by Sascoc for South Africa's Olympians in London.

Given South Africa's medal haul since 1992 (19 in five Olympic Games), the target is ambitious, particularly given that 2008 was our worst performance since 1936.

The traditional inquisition followed, and potential redemption awaits in London.

The solution is rarely to simply throw money at it, though this would probably produce a short-lived bump in our medal haul.

Australia worked out that Olympic success, at least in their system, obeyed a "money in equals medals out" equation. They calculated that every R120-million invested into their Olympic programme would produce eight bronze, three silver and three gold medals.

Similarly, in the Netherlands and UK, investment of R1-billion and R3.3-billion respectively produced medals in a predictable number.

South Africa invested a total of R59-million in Beijing preparations, and so it is perhaps understandable that we returned with a single silver medal. Theoretically, increasing the spend will increase the medal haul.

However, there are two major problems with this thinking. First, we cannot possibly justify the cost of medals in these systems. Would any South African be comfortable spending R40-million to earn a single gold medal?

We need an approach that wins "cheaper" medals. Second, the "money in, medals out" equation works only when money is invested into a stable, well-functioning system.

In the absence of a professional system that comprises world-class management, coaching and scientific-medical support, pouring money into sport is analogous to emptying a tin of paint on the ground - it creates a great deal of mess, but achieves little purpose.

That "target" should be on the fundamental requirement for sporting success, which is that our best athletes are paired with world-class coaches, who are then supported by world-class management and scientific structures.

In South Africa, this three-pronged relationship is rarely created. Simply put, we do not maximise opportunities for our best people to fully immerse themselves in the sport. Intellectual immersion means empowering our best athletes, coaches, managers and scientists to learn everything there is to learn about their sport. They must understand it, identify predictors for success and failure, and then spend all their energy on maximising success and minimising failure. Intellectual immersion means recognising that winning Olympic medals is a 60-hour-a-week commitment .

While attending a recent conference in London ahead of the Olympic Games, I was struck by the sheer volume of expertise that is supported by sport in the UK. Athletics alone employs eight full-time sports scientists, who literally spend their time living up to the Olympic motto of "Swifter, higher, stronger". One employee, who holds a PhD in engineering, is employed as a "horizontal jump specialist", and his job is to use sophisticated cameras and biomechanics software to help coaches (also full-time) improve the athlete's performance by 10cm a year, knowing that the end result will be a gold medal in London.

The management structures are similarly advanced - every sport is run as a business.

Those in charge are given authority and funding, but in return, are fully accountable for performance. The end result is that uncertainty is removed.

In South Africa, our reliance on volunteers creates a climate of uncertainty. The constant provision of sufficient funding is uncertain. Knowledge of what it takes to win is uncertain.

We are an Olympic nation navigating a maze in darkness. Intellectual immersion is the headlamp, and we failed to pack it for Beijing. Time will tell whether we have remembered it for London.

Ross Tucker is a research scientist at UCT's Sports Science Institute. His column on the Olympics will appear every Wednesday until the conclusion of the Games.

Follow Tucker on twitter @scienceofsport

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Uncertainty is source of SA Olympic failure

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