Olympic low

22 September 2008

Looking ahead: Dr Ross Tucker: "We [sports scientists] want to be involved in the diagnosis and the development of a vision for 2020."

As our Paralympians completed their medal haul in Beijing, sports scientists were dissecting the dismal performance of Team South Africa at the Olympics.

At a debriefing at the Sports Science Institute, UCT alumnus Dr Ross Tucker said our athletes had faced an ambush, with insufficient armour, weapons, or strategy.

The problem lay with sports structures that marginalised coaching expertise and misunderstood the need for a scientific approach to sport.

For example, the SA Olympics team had departed for Beijing without a sports psychologist on board.

"More than this, it's the lack of psychological support during the four years of Olympic preparation that betrays our inadequate support of the athletes," Tucker added.

"The Olympics is too big an occasion to get away with this."

Having fallen well short of SASCOC's 10-medal prediction, it was the country's worst Olympics performance since readmission in 1992 - and since 1936.

"We [sports scientists] don't want to stand on the outskirts," Tucker said. "We want to be involved in the diagnosis, and the development of a vision for 2020.

And while many African and personal-best records had been smashed by our athletes, Tucker said that unless we began to invest in those athletes now, it was unlikely that any would make a final in London in 2012.

But talent isn't the problem.

"We have good young athletes and potential medal winners, but they will be lost over the next four years because there is no structure to feed them into."

He advocates a simple, inclusive strategy: match the best athletes with the best coaches, provide real financial support and a thoroughly intellectual approach.

South Africa, he said, marginalised its expertise.

"Our best 800m coach is working in a Virgin Active gym as a personal trainer. Why?

"Elite sport should be coach-driven."

It wasn't enough to emulate the Australians with their Australian Institute of Sport, a government-funded centre that pools the world's best coaches, sports scientists and elite athletes.

"When you copy someone you're always behind them. We want to be ahead."

Professionalism is the key - and investment in intellect.

"Sports science is not just about a finger-prick lactate and VO2 max test. The role of the sports scientist is to generate intellectual capital through partnerships between science and athletes.

"Success will come only when there is intellectual immersion of the athlete and coach in the sport. But too many coaches have no desire to work with scientists, and too many scientists are unable to impact the coach-athlete partnership. It will take investment in the right experts to change that."

Tucker and Professor Tim Noakes have put together a strategic vision for maximising the potential of high performance sport in the country by 2020.

Talking about the SSI's role in the 2007 Springbok World Cup squad, Noakes said they had been involved from the start. Their task was to ensure that the selectors had a squad of fit, injury-free players to choose from.

"Our hypothesis was to control the amount of rugby played by each team member in the lead-up to the World Cup. In the final, all 15 players played the full 80 minutes.

"We need hypothesis-drive coaches. We can't allow our sport to slip into mediocrity. The time is now and we have to change it."

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