Safe hands: Meet the Sports Science Institute's new chief

27 July 2016 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Michael Hammond.
Medical alumnus Dr Phatho Zondi, the new chief executive officer of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa.
Medical alumnus Dr Phatho Zondi, the new chief executive officer of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa.

Dr Phatho Zondi's new office in the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA) is shaping up. She's shifted her desk to the window and pictures in bubble wrap await. The painters are due in, says Zondi, who's just finished a 'handover' lap with her predecessor, Morné du Plessis. It's a good time to be talking sport and exercise − and her plans to get South Africans, well, up and running.

Du Plessis has now retired as managing director of the 21-year-old flagship sports and exercise science institute he founded with Tim Noakes and Johann Rupert back in 1995 when the Springboks wrote South Africa into world sport history.

Outside looms the concrete hulk of the DHL Newlands rugby stadium and just beyond is the lush green of Newlands Cricket Ground. It's a sport-soaked bit of real estate with an in-your-face-view of Devil's Peak. It's easy to see why Zondi moved her desk.

She'd always wanted to study medicine but in her high school years a rival appeared. Sport is in her genes. At Westville High School she played provincial netball for KwaZulu-Natal and excelled in track and field events. (Later, at UCT, she played netball for a Western Province development side.)

“We grew up in Claremont, and would often accompany my dad to Lahee Park near Pinetown where he trained for Comrades and my mother kept fit. Running was a family affair.”

In the end, the dilemma was solved quite simply. Her sister called one day after hearing Tim Noakes on SAFM radio.

“Phatho, listen, I think this is what you want to do.”

It was the first time Zondi had heard of sports medicine. She called into the show and won (serendipitously) a copy Noakes' Lore of Running. It's a doorstopper of a book, but she read it from cover to cover.

She was sold.

Mind the gaps

After completing an MBChB at UCT, Zondi signed up for a postgraduate sports medicine degree at the University of Pretoria. Working with both professional and recreational athletes gave the new clinician good exposure to sport and sports medicine at different levels.

“It was intentional,” said Zondi. “That journey showed me where the opportunities lay in an industry where I felt I could add value.”

But med school had also taught her to look for gaps. She'd noticed that health practitioners are undertrained in finance and business matters (her parents are accounting and finance professionals). To fill this hole in her own development, she tackled an MBA at the Gordon Institute of Business Science.

“It helped set me up and direct my career to where I find myself now in this role at SSISA.”

Heading up SSISA calls on all facets of her training and experience. She also brings an impressive pedigree having worked with SA Rugby (she's a former team doctor for the u20s), the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee and World Rugby. Zondi was chief medical officer for Team South Africa at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, team doctor for South Africa at the 2012 London Olympic Games and medical officer at the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

In addition, she is president of the South African Sports Medicine Association, a member of the medical advisory committee for the South African Olympic Committee, and serves on the South African Institute for Drug Free Sports Appeal Board.

Community with a view

SSISA is a great brand, says Zondi.

“The institute has pioneered sports science and exercise in South Africa and, with UCT's Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine (ESSM), has a strong foundation in research and teaching and service delivery. The challenge now is to take hold of new opportunities and redefine our space, given the changing context of the world and the dynamic landscape of sport science and exercise medicine.

“It's important that we continue to lead in the space of high-performance and demonstrate our ability to apply science to produce world-class performances in selected sports.”

But there is another gap Zondi has in her sights: the community beyond the leafy green belt where socio-economic conditions shape the population. Factors like diet and lifestyle are linked to rising obesity, especially among black women, and to hypertension and diabetes.

This is where she and colleague Professor Vicki Lambert, head of ESSM, believe the hard graft lies. (Attached to UCT's Department of Human Biology, ESSM is SISSA's research arm.)

SSISA already has sound community programmes in place but these must grow.

“We should be making a bigger impact at community level and specifically in translating research into meaningful health interventions, not only for elite athletes but for you and me.”

But issues around lifestyle are complicated in poorer communities, says Zondi. Healthy food is expensive and not always accessible. And being outdoors it not always safe.

“We need to be realistic about the economic and financial circumstances people find themselves in.”

“To effect meaningful and sustainable change, we must build partnerships with government departments from health to social welfare to correctional services.”

Community programmes must begin with early childhood development and by introducing children to physical activity as early as possible.

“It's play that sets the foundations of musculoskeletal development and hand-eye coordination.”

The youth sector is critical.

“If we don't act now, we're headed for disaster … Health problems impact on our human capital because if we're not taking care of our young people, we know they will be limited when they're older by chronic illnesses that affect lifespan and productivity, which affects their ability to be productive and contribute to the economy.”

It is very complex and multi-layered, says Zondi.

“This is the socio-economic environment in which we live. And you can't copy and paste first-world interventions to address the barriers and unique circumstances in our communities.”

Change agents

Transformation in sport is also vital to harnessing the collective potential of our nation, across gender, age and disability platforms.

“It's an exciting time to be involved in sport and exercise medicine; things are changing. As a woman in this industry I may be frustrated that things aren't changing fast enough, but I need to acknowledge that change is happening. I make it my business to support women in sport, as a clinician and as an academic and researcher and industry leader.”

Change also extends to technology, which SSISA must harness as sport science and exercise medicine experts, says Zondi.

“It's a really important focus area. Technology should power the institute and advance our cause. It intercedes, overlaps and integrates our practices as clinicians and athletes.”

SA's Olympians and Paralympians

On the horizon is the world's biggest sports showcase. Next month she'll fly to Rio for the Olympics and Paralympics.

How does she rate South Africa's medal chances? An unfair question elicits a diplomatic response: “Our teams are in very strong form for both games. I'm looking forward to seeing how they fare.”

Stock up on popcorn.

It will mean a few weeks away from her family (Zondi's Twitter handle reads: “Sports physician, wife, mama”). She and husband Andile have a lively 15-month-old daughter, Ayeva ('We are growing'). The toddler already owns a netball and a basketball and dad has just bought her a driver and a putter.

“She's not yet connected the golf ball, but we're hoping at some point it'll click,” said Zondi.

She is reflective about the future.

“I'm excited about the journey ahead. It's important to know it is a journey. SSISA has pioneered a lot in this space and the challenge now is to take advantage of opportunities and build on the foundation. The industry of sports science and exercise medicine and wellness is dynamic and changing. To continue leading we need to embrace change.”

In this hub of activity, it's clear this is where she is meant to be.

“Sport and physical activity is central to my wellbeing and happiness.”

There's a whole campaign in there.

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