Total(itarian) Sports

Andrew Donaldson writes on the ANC govt's most recent sneaky power grab


I BELIEVE that in order for an activity to qualify as sport, it should satisfy three simple criteria: two competing teams are present; there is a ball of sorts; and the spectator or “entertainment” experience is enhanced by the consumption of alcohol.

I accept that many will disagree with me, and aggrieved canoeists and weightlifters may well be among their number. Each to their own, I suppose. 

However, this is not to say I don’t appreciate the skill, discipline and athleticism necessary to excel in a great number of contests — or the determination of players’ projecting parents, especially the pushy tennis mom. I do. I am not a Stalinist in this regard, although I draw the line at dancing with ribbons and the other “sparkly” exercises that will clutter the 2020 Tokyo Games viewing schedules.

Speaking of which, there are five new Olympic codes this year. One of them is baseball, which many regard as an American debasement of cricket, a far more noble game. Despite this, baseball is a bona fide sport. (Two teams, ball, beer.) 

Another new event is the non-sport karate, and its inclusion is perhaps a sop to the host nation as it is one of the four classic Japanese martial arts. 

Surfing also makes its debut at Tokyo. It’s not clear when a competitive element was first introduced to this zen-like recreational pursuit, possibly back in the early 1960s when it was considered a wizard way to flog swimming trunks. But it does seem odd that the lifestyle choice of those who shun interaction with land-borne humans should now be afforded Olympic status.

The other newcomers are sport climbing and skateboarding — and I’ll just let that sink in for the moment before returning to these millennial pastimes, which, in the officialese of Tokyo 2020, have been introduced to bring more “more youthful and vibrant events and culture into the Olympic programme”.

Golf, meanwhile, seems firmly back on the agenda. It was reintroduced for Rio 2016 after wisely being dropped after the 1904 St Louis Games. It is most certainly not a sport. Whatever its roots, it’s now regarded as an activity for cheating elites and power-crazy fools. 

To be fair, though, it’s not only psychopaths who are attracted to golf. The game has also thrown up more benign “characters”, and even more interesting clothing. 

Better still, it has inspired some wonderful writing. PG Wodehouse penned these words in The Clicking of Cuthbert (1922): “Golf … is the infallible test. The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well.” 

And we have this from the same novel: “The least thing upset him on the links. He missed short putts because of the uproar of the butterflies in the adjoining meadows.” 

Which does remind us, a century later, of Donald Trump and his habit of kicking the ball out of the rough. Not for nothing do his caddies call him “Pele”. But let’s not dwell too much on Potus the Scrotus and his fluid scorecard.

Back to skateboarding. According to the expats here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), Capetonians should excel at this event in Tokyo. The Mother City’s eternally gridlocked motorists have long since marvelled at the detached grace and speed with which these man-children negotiate rush-hour traffic on Kloof Nek and other roads. Even the minibus taxis fail to hit them.

And don’t they look the part for Tokyo. When it comes to styling, many local skateboarders go full samurai. With their scraggly beards and cheeky man-buns, they could all pass as extras in a Kurosawa movie. 

I fear, though, that our moment with sport climbing may have passed. This event, according to the Tokyo 2020 website, will see contestants “using a range of hand and foot holds of different shapes and sizes” as they scale a vertical wall “measuring more than 12m in height”. 

There was a time when further obstacles would be tackled by the local sport climber. These would vary from terrain to terrain. But the event would invariably end with a high-speed sprint by contestants, often with a handicap — perhaps a TV set — as the alarm was raised. The event has fallen out of favour. Many now opt for the more direct, less subtle home invasion. A sad sign of the times.

Which brings us, conveniently, to those world champions in thieving, the ruling party, and their new plans to “provide for the promotion and development of sport and recreation” — or, as we see it, to cock that up as well.

The Sport and Recreation Amendment Bill was released for the customary 30-day period of comment in December — just as the country slipped into its annual festive season torpor. 

This is the ANC’s customary craven sneakiness, hoping that “interested parties” would be too stuffed with pudding and larking about on holiday to put pen to paper and inform Nathi Mthethwa, the minister concerned, that he is no longer a sport climber and that he and his department should stop with the Stasi stuff and give over with this shameless bid to “nationalise” our various sporting codes. 

It’s easy to understand why they dreamt up this monstrosity. There was just too much national goodwill floating about following the Rugby World Cup victory. The ANC played no part in that stunning achievement, and that must have rankled. (They’re so desperate for “good news” stories, they’d even turd-polish, spin and lie about the matric results.)

The bill proposes the establishment of a sport arbitration tribunal to resolve disputes between sport or recreation bodies. What for? Are these people incapable of resolving disputes among themselves? Has not Cricket SA just given their kitbags a good, albeit belated shaking out to rid the sport (two teams, ball, lots of beer) of mouldering botherers and other useless administrators?

Among other things, the tribunal would regulate the fitness industry, meddle in procedures in the bidding for and hosting of international sports and recreation events, provide for the delegation of powers and controversially provide for offences and penalties.

Other proposed changes include the removal of sports bodies’ independence. These organisations would now have to consult with the minister as they seek ways to develop and promote their games and activities. Even more outlandish, the minister would be empowered to directly interfere and bother wherever he felt necessary.

Furthermore, the department would assume full control of all codes, with its oversight extending to “any national federation, agency, club or body, including a trust, professional league, or registered company of such a national federation, agency, club or body, involved in the administration of sport or recreation at local, provincial or national level”.

How this would go down with your local health club has yet to be seen. And woe betide the little gym bunnies if they don’t comply, given the stiff fines and sentences of up to two years in jail are proposed for offenders.


Commentators point out that the bill also allows the ANC to effectively regulate the appointment of foreign coaches. Even sports promoters will be regulated. The minister would also be the only person able to award Proteas or Springbok colours. 

This does seem inconceivable. But it gives the government a chance to do away with all that embarrassing selection-on-merit nonsense that crops up from time to time whenever a national side performs well on the international stage and the racial obsessives all come storming out from under a rock armed with callipers, pencils and Pantone swatches.

It is true that, given a few more of those beers, all of us turn into expert coaches and selectors. But not to this extent. 

There are precedents for this sort of behaviour. Football fans will recall that, following less than subtle interventions by Muammar Gadaffi, the ANC’s late and great blesser, his son Al-Saadi Gaddafi was picked to captain the Libyan national football team. 

With that, certain regulations came into force. It was forbidden for example, for sports commentators to announce the name of any footballer with the exception of Gadaffi. All other players were referred to by the numbers on their strip. Referees also knew what was good for them and unsurprisingly Gaddafi’s team performed exceptionally well on the day. Security forces were also present just in case supporters of opposing teams objected to the less than marginal on-field decisions.  

True, Gaddafi’s career in Italy’s Serie A league was a bit of a disappointment. He joined EUFA Champions League qualifiers Udinese Calcio in 2005-2006, but played only ten minutes in an end-of-season league match. He joined UC Sampdoria the following season but did not play a single match. But at home he was a star. By order. And that’s what matters. 

Some observers suggest that should the Sport and Recreation amendments become law, it could lead to the country being kicked out of international events like the Olympics. Nothing new there, I suppose. Thanks to apartheid and the sport boycott, we grew accustomed to playing with ourselves.

Lastly, and on an upbeat note, the 2020 Super Rugby season kicks off at the end of the month and, for various reasons, more South African players will be turning out for foreign clubs from New Zealand, Australian and Japan. On February 1, the Six Nations gets underway. More Saffers there, too. 

This is proper sport. Now, if only Eskom could keep the lights on.