Sports science merger ramps up community focus

14 July 2017 | Story Helen Swingler. Photos Stephen Cruickshank.
Dr Phatho Zondi (right) and Prof Vicki Lambert celebrate the merging of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa and the Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine.
Dr Phatho Zondi (right) and Prof Vicki Lambert celebrate the merging of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa and the Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine.

The Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA) and UCT’s Exercise Science and Sports Medicine (ESSM) division have cemented a 21-year-long relationship in a merger, extending the reach of their programmes and research to all South Africa’s communities.

The merger was announced as part of celebrations to mark SSISA’s coming of age, 21 years after its establishment by former Springbok rugby captain Morné du Plessis and Professor Tim Noakes.

The new-identity celebration capped two days of festivities at SSISA that included member functions, a three-hour live breakfast broadcast show, launch functions with SSISA brand ambassadors Africa Melane, Nigel Pierce and Cynthia Tshaka and presentations by inspirational South Africans Riaan Manser and Brandon Beack.

SSISSA and ESSM have enjoyed a close working relationship over the years and both come with formidable records. In 21 years SSISA has trained 670 professional athletes. They conduct 218 334 gym sessions, 10 276 personal training sessions and 6 188 fitness classes a year. They have trained more than 10 000 learners through their courses and through the Culture, Arts, Tourism, Hospitality and Sport Sector Education and Training Authority.

ESSM is among the world’s top 50 sports institutions with over 100 research collaborations in 29 countries. Since 1981 they have trained 670 postgraduate students. They have published over 1 100 accredited papers in 20 years, nearly five a month, and their citation average is 23 per publication (“I’d call us well read,” quipped head of ESSM Professor Vicki Lambert). Thirteen of their staff are rated by the National Research Foundation and their PhD graduates are sought after around the world. The division also advises world bodies such as the World Health Organisation and the International Olympic Committee.

Speaking at the launch, Lambert said, “We look forward to this merger to ensure the broader translation of our science so that we can make a difference in the day-to-day lives of all South Africans, to be their personal best, for sport, health, and for quality of life.”

SSISA chief executive officer Dr Phatho Zondi added, “We are repositioning ourselves to strengthen the relationship with UCT through ESSM to herald a new era in health, with partners across four pillars: wellness, performance, education and research.”

Zondi said that with access to the academic expertise of ESSM, both entities would have an unprecedented opportunity to combine their skill sets and resources to develop and deploy next generation services and products in the field of exercise science and sports medicine.

New learning opportunities

Two new educational programmes aimed at school leavers are already in the pipeline: an online short course (unaccredited) in health and fitness, which will go live in October 2017, and accredited diploma- and certificate-bearing short courses in personal training, for launch in January 2019.

Zondi said, “We took a step back to look at what’s needed in society. We all heard the cries for solutions for tertiary education when it comes to school leavers. We realised we have a strong partner in UCT; there’s a lot we can leverage there.”

She said they would continue to support elite athletes, targeting research to enhance their performances.

“As we need to hone our strengths and look at our opportunities we made a strategic decision in the medium term to focus on four key sports: cycling, running, swimming and rugby.”

One aim is to continue contributing to the global body of rugby research, where ESSM has made valuable contributions over the years.

Be Your Personal Best

Their new focus is encapsulated by their slogan Be Your Personal Best.

Zondi said, “Be Your Personal Best captures the brand essence of SSISA and speaks not only to personal wellness but to our social responsiveness as a community of South Africans.”

Taking her up on that point was guest speaker Gideon Sam, president of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee. He bemoaned the fact that South Africa’s elite sports institutes wasted their energies competing against one another in the reputation stakes. He said greater collaboration was needed to “put whatever we have behind our athletes”.  

“This is not a country for 10 [Olympic] medals,” he noted, referring to the Rio Games.

With their focus also firmly on Tokyo in 2020, Zondi took Sam up on his promise to come knocking at SSISA’s door.

“I’m making a commitment tonight to being part of the solution. We are looking at Tokyo 2020 and I’m taking you up on the challenge. We commit to being a link that will strengthen the chain to support our athletes.”

With ESSM as the “boiler room” of evidence-based research, there’s much scope to realise the vision for promoting healthy and active lifestyles and optimum sporting performance.

“The key words here are transformative research, innovation, teaching and training and clinical services,” said Lambert. “That’s the business. That’s what this merger is about.”

Zondi added, “Our journey has been an evolution, not a revolution, and the new logo reflects that as we look ahead to the next 21 years.

“The common thread through these four pillars is that we bring people closer to realising their potential: wellness, performance, education and research.

“We strive to be our personal best so we can be yours,” she told the audience.

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