In the absence of a comprehensive national plan for the development of elite athletes with disabilities, the major sporting role players converged on the University of Johannesburg for a three-day provincial workshop from Friday 1 February 2013.
The aim of the workshop – held in association with the Gauteng Department of Sports, Arts, Culture and Recreation – is to bring together sport science, medical and coaching experts in disability sport to share knowledge with the associations, federations, high performance centres and government programmes to which these elite athletes belong.
All major national and regional stakeholders involved with sport for elite athletes with disabilities were invited to attend the workshop.
According to UJ Sport’s manager for students with disabilities Henriëtte Vermaak, the institution hoped to formulate a basic plan of how to extend these services and create a far-reaching support structure.
“Unfortunately, we only have pockets of expertise, based mainly in two or three centres in South Africa. Our athletes however come from all nine provinces, rely on a very basic support structure for high performance training, and often at their own cost.
Vermaak said the challenge was to broaden the base and ideally extend the services under the auspices of Sascoc and Sport and Recreation South Africa (SRSA).
However, she said, neither the White Paper on sport and recreation nor SRSA’s five-year strategic plan for sport, which places the responsibility for elite athletes firmly on Sascoc’s shoulders, clearly addresses or defines the support structures and role players that will provide for the needs of athletes with disabilities.
“Between these structures and long-term plans, the athlete preparing for the Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016 is essentially lost.”
Vermaak said the matter was becoming urgent as international standards had improved dramatically between 2008 and 2012 and that South Africa was losing its competitive edge.
The country dropped from sixth on the medals table at the Beijing Games to 18th in London.
“The truth is we didn’t do that well in London last year if you compare the number of athletes participating versus medals won. We relied on stars like Natalie du Toit and Oscar Pistorius to rake in a minimum of three to four medals each.
“I believe South Africa will drop even further down the medal list if we don’t formalise a national structure, parallel to the able-bodied structure, for the development and support of our future Paralympians.”
By creating a knowledge base, she said, federations, provincial and national governing bodies would be able to call on individuals (like the workshop attendees) and structures for assistance.
Since the incorporation of Disability Sport SA into what is now known as Sascoc, some federations had been incorporated into their able-bodied counterparts and some had fragmented, leaving the athletes to their own devices, said Vermaak.
“Although we have a very workable but challenging National Plan for Sport Development in place, there is no clear framework within SRSA and Sascoc indicating who actually represents athletes with disabilities.
“Specifically,” she said, “with regard to national representation, participation, transparent selection standards, funding and, most of all, the active, consistent development of structures that will support the potential medal contenders over the next four to eight years.”
Vermaak said the workshop had direct relevance for the university as 11 athletes at the UJ Centre of Specialisation, which offers support to adaptive rowing, wheelchair tennis and athletics, had represented Team SA in London.
The keynote speaker will be Nik Diaper, head of sports science and sports medicine (Paralympic Sports) for the English Institute of Sport, which is partly funded by the British Paralympics Association.
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The University of Johannesburg’s wheelchair tennis ace Kgothatso Montjane is one of the elite athletes who will benefit from the provincial workshop on support structures for disability sports, which will be hosted by the university this weekend. Photographer: Photo: Supplied.