Professor Tim Noakes (MD, DSc)

Tim Noakes is Professor in the Discovery Health Chair of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town and co-founder with Morne du Plessis of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. He is one of few South African scientists rated A1 by the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa.

Fully to understand the current state of South African sport and the choices that lie ahead, it is perhaps appropriate to begin with an analogy from one of South Africa’s greatest successes, the development of the gold mining industry.

The discovery of diamonds in the vicinity of Hopetown in 1867 attracted an influx of international mining and exploration expertise which led to the more important discovery of what, with time, would become recognized as the world’s largest gold deposits below the Witwatersrand in 1885.

But the immediate challenge faced by the early mining companies was that they did not know the full extent of these gold deposits. If they were similar to all the other gold deposits discovered by then, they would not extend to any great depth below the earth’s surface and would soon be exhausted. But if the gold deposits extended to any great depth, then the technology available to extract that gold was not available and would have to be developed at great cost and substantial risk.

Fortunately the gold deposits proved to be enormous and the necessary intellectual and capital investment was made. As a result, South Africa developed the world’s leading mining technology that produced amongst many other extraordinary achievements the ability to mine 4000m below the earth’s surface in temperatures at the rock face of up to 60OC. As a result, 33% of all the gold ever taken from the earth has come from the South African gold mines.

The analogy to the position in which South African sport currently finds itself is the following: Before the turn of the last century, all the early miners used primitive techniques to extract the gold. Since the same techniques were used by everyone, no country had special knowledge (intellectual capitol) that provided a unique advantage. The difference was that only South Africa had access to colossal gold reserves, never before imagined.

By analogy, until about 1968 all countries throughout the world approached sport essentially in the same amateur way – their best athletes were simply those who had the most talent and the best attitude. Since athletes generally received little additional medical and scientific support and since coaching was fairly standard around the world, it was the athlete’s genetic ability and inherent motivation that usually determined the outcome.

But the entry of East Germany into world sport after 1964 completely changed all the rules and within a decade had revolutionized the approach needed for future sporting success. Just as the enormous gold reserves of the Witwatersrand required the development of novel methods beyond the traditional shallow mining techniques then practiced. If the South African mines were ever to become economically viable and to provide the financial returns driving the industrialization of this country, something would have to change. Just as after 1964, a revolutionary new approach to athlete preparation would have to be adopted by those countries who wished their athletes to compete with the East Germans.

For, provided with a level of support never before imagined, East German athletes began to dominate international competition after 1968. The success of this new approach was not lost on some other countries. Australia, in particular, sort to re-create the conditions achieved by the East Germans and has become the dominant sporting nation in the world relative to their population size. England, host of the 2012 Olympic Games, is the next Western country attempting to follow the Australian example. But all will be dwarfed by the future successes of Chinese athletes at and after the 2008 Olympics. Indeed Chinese athletes are about to redefine world sporting dominance in a way that will make even Australia’s current dominance seem almost benevolent.

The point is that the current South African approach to international sport is no different from that of our pioneering miners who knew only how to work at very shallow depths. Thus our sport is doing nothing more than simply scratching the surface of what is needed to compete with the world’s best; we are attempting to compete by using the athlete’s equivalent of the pick and shovel whereas our competitors have long since mechanized and disappeared below the surface in search of the gold at an ever escalating pace.

Thus, especially the Australians, the Chinese, the Americans and now even the English, amongst some others, have seen the value of the sporting gold that lies below the surface and have therefore chosen to invest the money, time and effort to mine that resource. In mining terms, the English are at about 2000m and progressing rapidly whereas the Australians, already at 4000m, are finding it difficult to progress further since they have reached the limits of their ability to continue funding the increased costs of working at such depth. In contrast the Chinese are burrowing away furiously at an undisclosed depth; some rumors suggest that they have already passed 5000m and should easily be at 6000m by the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Americans have been at about 5000m for the past twenty years but will show no inclination to go deeper unless they suddenly discover that the Chinese have surpassed them.

But the dear, timid South Africans are imprisoned on the surface, lacking the vision, the courage and the determination of those who took our ancestral mining industry to its position of world dominance.

So the choice of what to do in the future is no different from that which faced the original South African mining companies in the 1890’s: Do we invest more in our sport in the hope that this investment will produce something of value in the future? Or do we continue to bumble along without direction and ambition because we conclude either that the effort is not worth the outcome or that our people really lack the capacity to be successful? That is the pivotal decision that needs to be made at this moment in our nation’s history.
My impression from discussions with South Africans from all walks of life is that the patience of our people is running out. Our national dignity requires that we be more successful at least in some sports like soccer, rugby and cricket and some individual sports like distance running and swimming. It might be an error to underestimate the depth of that feeling. But if we are to reverse our current direction, in my view, there are two fundamental changes that must be made if South African sport is ever to progress from its current position of stagnation and increasing mediocrity.

1. The essential role of real government support.

Neither East Germany, China, Australia nor England would have improved their sporting performances without committed government support both financial and political. The amount of money needed to turn around Australian sport was described in an earlier column. Currently that amount runs to close to one billion rand a year. I suspect that the investment made by the current British government is probably within that range. In contrast, the Chinese investment is more likely to be at least 10-fold higher. This can be guessed from the relative numbers of sportsmen and women currently receiving government support in Australia, England and China. Whereas Australia and England support fewer than 1000 athletes, it has been stated that China currently supports in excess of 20 000 athletes.

But the South African support systems continue to believe that a few million rands here and there will insure that our athletes are competitive in the 2008 Olympics. Perhaps it is time for a public reality check. Either we are serious about being competitive in Olympic and other international competitions including the soccer, cricket and rugby World Cups. Or we are not. But let us at least inform the public of exactly what is the true situation both within South Africa and in the rest of the world.

If we take the Australian model as an example, we need also to understand the real reasons for their success. Their money does not go into funding the expenses of a few talented athletes, training at sports institutions under parochial coaches who lack proven track records in international competition, in a system run by uninquisitive, disinterested, clock-watching administrators. Rather the success of the Australians is due almost exclusively to the quality of the intellects they have attracted to the AIS and their state academies, their national passion to be the best in the world (allied to a real, not fancifal, belief that they are indeed the best), and the extensive intellectual capitol and sporting technology that they have developed in all the disciplines that support their athletes. Thus over the past 20 years, the billions of rand invested in Australian sport has produced Australian coaches, physiotherapists, sports scientists and sports physicians who, like their athletes, are better than most from the rest of the world. More importantly they know exactly what works. No guess work; no leaving outcomes to chance. Just the application of a faultless system that has proved itself countless times in the future and which will continue to be improved for as long as Australians play sport and consider the investment worthwhile.

The point is that if South African sport is to prosper in the future, government will have to make a significant financial contribution to bring this about. But unless the money is spent in developing what is really needed, it would be better spent elsewhere, since it will be wasted.

2. The crucial role of personal attitude.

As the sole South African to have survived serving on 3 separate investigations into the future of South African sport over the past 25 years – the Scholtz Commission of 1980; the National Sports Council Sports Investigation of 1994, and the Ministerial Task Team of 2001 – and as someone who has worked with a range of our top sports administrators, coaches and sportsmen and women, I have finally concluded that there is another reason why South Africans under-perform in sport. It has to do with a common South African attitude to ourselves and our sport and which precludes all but that very select few who break that mold and so are able to compete effectively with the rest of the world. A friend who was a world-class sports performer has confided his opinion that South Africans under-perform in world sport because we have a national inferiority complex. I think he is only partially correct. I think we are too mentally lazy to make the necessary effort. We too easily accept what is only second best since the extra effort required to be the best is simply not worth it. Let us rather go and have a beer.

So my conclusion is that South African sport currently allows too many people including administrators, coaches and sportsmen and women, a very large comfort zone with excessive rewards that blunt a too easily satisfied ambition. For if you can be comfortable as a big fish in a very small pond, why aspire to anything more? Why make the effort to take on the world when the rewards for being quite ordinary in world terms does not prevent you from being a hometown hero deluged with extravagant financial and other rewards?

The evidence for my argument comes from the attitudes of our world class proponents in the one sport at which South Africans (inexplicable and apparently against all logic) are truly amongst the very best in the world – our professional golfers. What distinguishes Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Tim Clarke and Trevor Immelman from many other leading South African sportsmen and women is that they all chose to take on the world and not to be measured good, only in local terms. Their goal was to become big fishes in one of the very biggest oceans in the world; to follow the lead famously blazed by Bobby Locke and Gary Player, the stellar performers amongst many other great South African golfers. And our current four were not scared to take the risks and to suffer the discomforts that such a choice necessarily causes. Penny Heyns, Ryk Neethling and Roland Schoeman all share that same distinction. But in my opinion too few of our administrators, coaches and sportmen and women are prepared to make that choice. So our sport languishes with too few real sporting heroes who have made a truly international impact. The analogy can be extended to team sports.

Thus it is a common belief that to win the Rugby World Cup requires that at least 8 of that team must play at least as well or better than all the other players in their positions on all the other teams. No coach can force any of his players to take this responsibility; the decision of which 8 players are going to do this has to be made by each player himself. But if no member of the team believes that this is his responsibility (who needs to be the best in the world when being the best in South Africa is good enough?), then the team’s international failure is assured. Similarly for a cricket team to win the cricket World Cup probably requires that at least 5 of that team’s players are ranked as the very best in the world in their particular positions. I assume that the requirements are similar in the soccer World Cup.
Of course to be the best in the world requires that you leave behind the material and other trappings of ephemeral success and the attendant social risks, and ascend to rather higher levels of ambition, intellectual curiosity, mental and physical preparation, and the acceptance of adult responsibility including, especially, the capacity for persistently deferred gratification.

But one just has the feeling that Australians especially are more prepared to accept these responsibilities as if it is part of their sporting heritage, following the flawless example of their first and greatest sporting icon, Sir Donald Bradman. Whereas too many of our locally-successful sporting role models present no external evidence that they understand this requirement. Rather, like children enjoying an extended birthday party, they seem to act as if there will never be a different or more challenging tomorrow. Our problem is that we do nothing to dissuade that belief and much to perpetuate it.

Until our sportsmen and women realize that to be the best in the world requires an understanding that every moment of every working day must be devoted to that quest, they will not succeed. For confirmation, they need just ask those of our sportsmen and women who have achieved the title of world’s best.

Nor are our administrators immune to the charge that they also accept the lowered barrier far too easily. For example, 1999 should have been the greatest year in the history of South African sport since our rugby and cricket teams were on top of the world with every prospect that they should win both the World Cups on offer that year. In the event, we failed on both counts.

In the case of the cricket team, our performances were profoundly sub-par and but for the contribution of Lance Klusener, we would likely have been knocked out in the preliminaries. Yet no attempt was ever made to understand exactly what went wrong in the tournament. Why should we? After all, but for an unfortunate run out we would have won the tournament? As a result nothing was learned and nothing changed. Instead the tournament ushered in a period of decline in our international cricketing fortunes, the end of which does not yet appear to be in sight.

Nor was this failure without antecedent. For a similarly inexplicable collapse, although only in a single game, occurred in the 1996 Cricket World Cup quarter final match between South Africa and the West Indies.

Similarly it is my view, contested by some expert coaches who know much more about rugby than I will ever, that the 1999 Rugby World Cup was lost in the 12 months preceding that competition and in which 2 potentially key players, Gary Teichmann (who in the end was not selected for the tournament) and Henry Honiball, reached a state of complete physical exhaustion and injury and were unable to prepare properly for that competition. That Henry Honiball (who was selected for the tournament) played in only the final game after the Cup had already been lost, must have influenced the final destiny of that trophy.

In contrast the Australians who won that tournament, rested their 3 senior and key players from the winning 1991 team for prolonged periods before that competition. Moreover one of those players, Tim Horan, was selected as the Player of the Tournament.

Yet again nothing was learned from this experience. Finishing third was OK. After all, if it had not been for the freak drop kick by Stephen Larkham, we would have won the Cup. So why make a fuss? Just as was the case in cricket, our rugby fortunes went into a steep decline after the 1999 Rugby World Cup and have only now begun to recover.

But only now 7 years later, do we acknowledge that the team that wins the 2007 Rugby World Cup will be that of a group of 4 or 5 that has the fewest injuries and the optimum period of rest and recuperation in the 12 months before that competition.

What our administrators seem not to understand is that, in the Darwinian challenge posed by modern international sport, once you accept second best as good enough, you are heading for extinction. Modern global sport is about the survival of the fittest.

Finally our local coaches need also to understand that the very best coaches in the world are not South African. Nor are they even Australian. Rather they are the Americans coaching in their National Football and National Basketball Leagues. That is the current pinnacle of coaching knowledge and ability. Until our top coaches begin to serve internships with coaches of that caliber, they will remain ignorant of what it really takes to be the best coach in any particular sport in the world.

Continued ignorance as they say, is bliss. But it is no foundation for future success.


In this series of articles we have reviewed the current state of South African sport and have identified the two key variables – government financial and political support, and the adoption of a truly global (instead of the currently parochial) perspective of what constitutes true sporting excellence – that must change if South Africa is to become a real player in international sport.

I am reminded of one final analogy.

Prior to the liberation of this country in 1994, a handful of people saw a vision of what could be achieved. And they acted on that vision. Now South Africa desperately needs leaders with a similar vision for the future of our sport.

But who, if anyone, it might be, remains to be seen.

Prof. Timothy Noakes

Tim Noakes is Professor in the Discovery Health Chair of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town and co-founder with Morne du Plessis of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. He is one of few South African scientists rated A1 by the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa