The science of winning
Published:Mar 15, 2009



Memorable Olympic gold in 2004 was result of expert advice, writes David Isaacson.



The best example of science in South African sport is probably the 4x100m freestyle relay team that won the Olympic gold medal in Athens 2004.

The selectors were against sending the relay squad to the Olympics, believing they would not be competitive. O n the advice of sports scientist Kim Swanwick, who tested the swimmers, they changed their minds.

The rest is history. Roland Schoeman, Ryk Neethling, Lyndon Ferns and Darian Townsend went to Greece and broke the world record as they claimed the gold which, as it turns out, remains the only Olympic gold taken by SA at the past three Games.

The frightening fact is that, to this day, science remains under utilised in SA sport.

“This country has never focused on long-term athlete development,” said Toby Sutcliffe, CEO of the High Performance Centre in Pretoria, this week.

He was announcing his organisation’s sponsorship of 18 athletes — 12 Olympians and six prospects — as part of the national Olympic committee’s drive to win 12 medals in London at the 2012 Games.


“There has been no co-ordinated approach. I will challenge any federation to show they’ve done eight- to 10-year planning,” he said, adding that the most enthusiastic federations he has encountered in the past 12 months were athletics, rowing and canoeing.

One of the HPC’s sponsored athletes is Schoeman, winner of three medals in 2004 — the relay gold, 100m freestyle silver and 50m freestyle bronze.

A multiple world record-holder too, Schoeman spent the past 10 years training in Arizona but, after the Beijing Games, returned to Pretoria and has started training with Igor Omeltchenko, best known as the coach of breaststroker Suzaan van Biljon.

Schoeman got a taste of the type of science being used by top Olympic nations during a recent training camp in Pretoria by a group of British swimmers.

The team’s biokineticist showed him lots of footage they had of Schoeman, purely for the purpose of analysing the lightning start that has helped make him the world’s quickest swimmer

“They probably had more footage of Roland than Swimming SA has,” said one HPC member.

Schoeman, who recently clocked 48.9sec in the 100m in training, is hoping to gain much from the HPC support, saying that the Arizona system, headed by Frank Busch, was old-school, being based on general training techniques rather than individualised programmes drawn up with the help of scientists.

“I need a lot of video analysis, blood analysis, access to a sports psychologist. In the past I had to pay out of my ear to get assistance,” said Schoeman.

The HPC’s sponsorship, which includes unlimited access to all their services, is valued around R40000 a year for each athlete, although it could be more should anyone require specialised treatment, for example, for an injury.

In spite of the guaranteed R400- million from the Lotto for Olympic sports until 2012, funding remains an important issue.

That R400-million, once divided between the various administrations might not be as much as it seems.

Most top Olympic nations have achieved success after substantial investments by government, but Gideon Sam, president of the SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, dismissed any chance of increased donations from the treasury, saying they were looking at finding sponsors.

Schoeman, a veteran of three Games who has seen SA’s Olympic sponsorship decimated, offered to speak to former and prospective sponsors to help secure funding for athletes.

Sam recently announced the ambitious target of 12 medals in 2012, as well as a shake-up that he vows will demand accountability from administrators.

“If we fail in 2012, I won’t be the only administrator to go,” Sam said at the HPC. “I will pull them all with me down the drain.”

Schoeman relishes the prospect of administrators being required to perform. “There is a renewed sense of faith on my part,” he said. “If the athletes don’t perform, the administrators go out. Gideon wants to see a change, it’s good to see our ideals are mirrored.”

There is an irony that Schoeman and Sam, a former president of Swimming SA, were at loggerheads in the past, especially over the swimmer’s lack of financial help from the federation in the build-up to 2004.

On opposite sides of the fence they still managed three swimming medals from the 2004 Olympics; as allies, perhaps they will achieve even more.