Over the weekend the South African men's hockey team joined their female counterparts in qualifying for the summer Olympics. South Africa defeated hosts Japan 2-1 in the final qualifying tournament on Sunday to secure the last spot in London.
It is a significant achievement, against the odds and worth taking note of. In fact, in the world of professional sport, where money plays an almost determining role in your success, it is nothing short of remarkable: their success defies a history of sustained political interference and financial difficultly often endured as a direct result of the state's poor administration.
Here is their story.
By a Shoestring
Outside of private sponsorship, the South African Hockey Association (SAHA) is funded by three primary sources: the National Lotteries Board, the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) and the Department of Sports and Recreation (DSR). But, like all sports outside of mainstream codes such as cricket, rugby and soccer, it receives precious little from each.
The total amount allocated by Sascoc to all Olympic sports teams for 2009/10 was R14 million. That amount increased marginally in 2010/11 to R17 million. Hockey would have received a fraction of that. According to the DSR's 2010/11 annual report, SAHA was allocated R1.1 million in 2009/10 and R940 000 in 2010/11. And the National Lotteries Board allocated to hockey R11 million in 2009/10 and R11.5 in 2010/11.
So, let's say at a generous estimate, and excluding other minor additions, SAHA receives around R15 million a year from the state. Admittedly that is one of the larger allocations next the other smaller sports but it pales in comparison to the main sporting codes. Not only are they able to raise enormous sums through sponsorship and television rights but, because of their size, they get more money from the state too. (Rugby alone, for example, got R35 million from the National Lotteries Board for 2010/11). On top of that, much of money is effectively ring-fenced. The allocation from the DSR must be used to grow the sports at grass roots level. It is not used to support the national team.
Both the National Lotteries Board and Sascoc have complained about the situation. In its presentation to the DSR portfolio committee, and according to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group, the Lotteries Board had the following to say:
"It was problematic that the biggest federations, better placed to attract commercial sponsorship, were the ones that got the biggest share in the allocation of funds from the National Lottery."
Likewise, this month, Sascoc president Gideon Sam would make a desperate appeal for more money for sporting codes like hockey:
"I cannot emphasise strongly enough how much we need to keep our resources from drying up now when we need it most", before continuing later, "Some of our major codes are battling financially and Swimming South Africa may need to retrench people at this crucial time. The hockey federation is also hobbling badly at a time when our national women's and men's teams are about to embark on their final qualifying bids."
Fair enough, you might say, money should be allocated in proportion to a sport's size and popularity. But, go a little further back in time, and it becomes apparent that hockey's major funder, the National Lotteries Board, as was the case with much of its funding for a sustained period of time, failed properly to allocate even those meagre amounts available to sports like hockey.
In 2008/09, hockey's National Lotteries Board grant was denied, ostensibly on the grounds that it had failed, as part of its application, to submit its constitution. It is difficult to fathom the Lotteries Board's thinking. Here was a national federation, desperate for money, which had ticked every box but failed to hand over a document that could have been secured with a phone call. That this should prevent it from recieving a life-saving grant seems absurd. Later SAHA would submit its constitution and appeal the decision, only to have that denied too. At the same time, Spar, a long time sponsor of the team, also terminated its sponsorship. The consequences of these two developments were dire.
Do or Die
In September 2009, faced with the choice of declaring insolvency or dramatically cutting back its limited expenditure and staff, SAHC went with the latter (bankruptcy would have effectively ruined the sports local and international standing beyond repair). It was a desperate and cruel choice and one which, no doubt, must have resulted in many painful decisions and a widespread decline in moral.
In a February 2010 statement SAHA CEO Marissa Langeni would explain the practical implications of the decision as follows:
"A restructuring process was embarked upon by the executive, taking into account legal advice. This resulted in certain positions becoming redundant or being redefined. SAHA initiated a formal process, engaging all staff on how the organisation would be restructured. Retrenchment agreements were entered into with affected staff members. The position of coaches within SAHA was redefined, resulting in SAHA no longer making use of them on a full-time basis. Coaches for the women's and men's teams will be appointed on an event specific basis."
One can just image the effect that process must have had on everyone in the organisation, players and management alike.
But their commitment never wavered.
Tellingly, in the same statement, Langeni would say the following:
"Hockey programmes will continue, albeit with possible contributions required from players and provinces alike from time to time. An example of this is that the Senior Men's team had to pay total costs for a training camp in October 2009 and, in addition, they had to pay R10 000-00 per player towards the BDO Men's Champions Challenge (where they improved their world ranking status from 15th to 13th). Furthermore, they were required to source an additional R220 000-00, which they managed to get funded by ex-national players. We extend our sincere gratitude to the Senior Men's team for their continued efforts and resilience in difficult times."
These are people, past and present, who truly love what they do. One has to admire their sheer passion and commitment to the game.
Through extensive but by all accounts painful lobbying, SAHA managed to secure a National Lotteries Board grant for 2009/10 and 2010/11, the former being expedited in light of its financial distress.
But despite these developments, SAHA and its players continue to operate on a shoestring budget.
Since Spar terminated its sponsorship, the sport has managed to secure odds and ends support (the Nedbank Sports Trust, for example, gives some money) but nothing substantial, although this past month Mr Price agreed to officially sponsor the team's kit, to its great credit.
And all that time the player's commitment has remained steadfast. In a recent interview, men's coach Gregg Clark stated: "If we have to fund ourselves to get to training camps and drink out of a tap, then we'll do that. At the end of the day we know what our goals are, we know what we want to achieve and we try to be as professional as we can."
One doesn't want to put all responsibility at the foot of government, business should do more as well. But the Olympics is different. If the government expects more than the single medal South Africa managed last time round, as it often says it does, it needs to put its money where its mouth is. Or, at the very least, distribute properly those monies it has agreed to make available.
Malicious Political Interference
But it isn't just financial constraints that have hindered the team, politically too they have been held back over the years and their progress stifled by an ANC agenda obsessed with quotas - one that has damaged the prospects of many sports but hockey in particular.
The men's hockey team also qualified for the 2000 Sydney Olympics but its participation in those games were blocked by then-Nocosa (National Olympic Committee of South Africa) president Sam Ramsamy, supposedly on the grounds that hockey was not transformed enough (it had seven players of colour in its squad of 30). Given the 1995 Rugby World Cup team had one player of colour and the dramatic effect their triumph had on national unity, the decision appeared nothing more than malicious and was widely condemned in the press. An especially cruel punishment for the players themselves, who had nothing but the deepest desire to do their country proud (indeed, they had won the All Africa Games in order to qualify).
But there were practical effects too. Nine international players withdrew from the squad following the decision and one can only image the effect on those thousands of young aspirant players thinking about a career in the sport.
Captain Craig Jackson put it like this:
"The guys have lost heart. Over the last two or three years we kept thinking that all we need is one little break and South African hockey would soar. Not going to the Olympics has just put us further back in that quest. We've wasted so much time, energy and emotion and, I'm afraid, we just don't have it anymore."
Heart-breaking stuff. To dedicate yourself to a sport for nothing more than the love it, to fund your own training so that you might qualify for the Olympics, the pinnacle of success, only, on doing so, to be told you aren't good enough.
Writing for the Sunday Times in September 2000, then-SAHA vice president Alan Corrigan said the decision had "put the game back five years". In response to that, Nocosa would change its tune, arguing the team was not, in its estimation, of sufficient quality to compete.
Four years later, in his book ‘Reflections on a Lifetime in Sport‘, Ramsamy would explain Nocosa's decision as follows: "Problems arose when white South African athletes and largely white teams began to qualify for the Olympics in sports like fencing, table tennis, rowing, hockey and the rest, that remained largely underdeveloped in the rest of Africa... Thus, the men's hockey side could not be selected for Sydney 2000: even though they qualified through Africa, they stood no real chance of winning a medal, and they did not include a significant number of previously disadvantaged players in their squad."
So much for support. And little wonder hockey has struggled for so long to get bigger sponsorships. Who would sponsor a team that, in spite of qualifying, might not be allowed to participate on the biggest stage of them all?
This past weekend, that pattern was broken.
Just prior to the team's departure for Japan, and having already done all the hard work in order to qualify, often at their own expense, sports minister Fikle Mbalula announced an additional R35 million for Sascoc in support for our various team's Olympic ambitions. I suppose one should be thankful for that allocation - better late than never - but remember, this was the same minister who, a week or two earlier, had spent R46 million on the South African Sports Awards - 60% of the National Lottery Board's contribution of R73.8m to support South Africa's participation in the London Olympics. So even that amount comes against a particular backdrop.
Sascoc itself congratulated the team on its achievement and you can be sure the sports minister and the ANC will be the first on the bandwagon if our hockey team does well.
And there is no reason to expect them not to. Coach Gregg Clark has described the men's team as comprising South Africa's "golden generation" of players.
But don't forget, for a moment, how difficult the government has made this qualification for our hockey players. And how they have persevered. At every turn and for a sustained period of time, the government has acted to retard, indeed, even directly to prevent, its growth and success. The ANC government is by no means a supporter of South African hockey.
When the Olympics arrive we will all revel in the enjoyment that our representatives give us. They play for us as much as they do themselves. Spare a special thought though for the hockey teams. These men and women really are the source of much pride. Individuals who, through thick and thin, have invested so much in national performance and representation, they have known only to forge ahead in spite of everything. And emerged triumphant. That truly is excellence.
Nationalism loves to wallow in ‘national pride'. In this particular case, however, the ANC government should hang its head in shame.
Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter