In June, after several years of turmoil, infighting, false starts, hirings and firings, court cases and intervention by national and international sporting bodies, Athletics South Africa appointed a new board under the leadership of President Aleck Skhosana, tasked with the job of getting the ship sailing in the right direction again – and the President believes that is exactly what is slowly but surely happening.
MA: We’ve seen our track and field athletes doing very well at the recent Commonwealth Games and African Champs, bringing home a number of medals and national records as well. You must be excited about this success, despite the past few years of turmoil at boardroom level?
It’s not only about me being excited, it’s about the country being excited, and our children who will come into the sport after this. Also, I am sure government is excited that ASA is doing what it is supposed to be doing. But we should give credit where it is due: Whilst there was turmoil in the sport, our coaches and athletes remained focused. They did not stop going to the track to train, or setting their targets, and the proof is in their results.
We sent 13 athletes to the Commonwealth Games and brought home nine medals, a national record. We said we wanted to reclaim our position as the powerhouse of African athletics at the African Senior Champs, and many people said it will take 10 years, but look, we won 19 medals, including 10 golds, with a squad of just 34 athletes, while Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria had squads of 60 to 70 each. We achieved what we set out to do, and the giant that is South African athletics, which had been sleeping, has been awoken.
MA: However, there was much criticism about the selection of the SA teams for these two meets, especially the middle-distance athletes being left out and total numbers cut by half to the African Champs, reportedly due to ASA being cash-strapped.
When we came in as the new board, I said that ASA would only work with people that know what they are doing, so we got in the most experienced coaches as selectors. They selected about 70 athletes that qualified for the African Championships, but there was not enough money to take all 70 athletes plus officials to Morocco – it was going to cost R2 million – so we requested the selectors to develop a new criteria that will speak to what we have. To cut the numbers down, they recommended that we select only those athletes ranked in the top three in Africa, and we were left with 35 athletes, but then there was an issue of no middle-distance athletes making the team. So we said let us first see how they perform at the Commonwealth Games, and fortunately Andre Olivier and Johan Cronje did very well in Glasgow, finishing third and fourth, so the selectors’ recommendation was to include them. It was transparent and based on current form.
MA: How is the current relationship between ASA and SASCOC, given that not very long ago SASCOC expelled ASA, which meant that our athletes could not be selected for World Games, nor receive Operation Excellence (OPEX) funding. Since then ASA has been reinstated, athletes went to the Commonwealth Games and Youth Olympics, but there were stories about athletes not being paid their full OPEX grants…
The relationship is good, our focus and targets are the same, to assist our athletes to shine where it matters most, at the Olympic Games. We have been meeting with SASCOC to plot the way forward, and SASCOC President, Mr Gideon Sam, even phoned from Glasgow to say, “Right, now we’ve got something to work with for 2016!” When we were elected, we said we are suspending all wars, external and internal, for the benefit of our athletes and coaches, and the integrity and image of the sport. We don’t have time to fight any more.
Now, I have not seen any complaints brought in by athletes that they have not been paid fully by SASCOC. In fact, we have said to SASCOC that we want to add more athletes to OPEX, but they said wait until after the Commonwealth Games, because we first need to set up new criteria and decide how many athletes we are taking for the 2016 plan, and there are also junior athletes coming through, like this young girl who won gold at the Youth Olympics, Gezelle Magerman. We have to think of all these young athletes, to prepare them for the World Junior Championships, and the different competitions around the world.
MA: When you were elected, you said that your key priorities are to fast-track development and transformation, and to restore the dented image of ASA. After four months in the job, do you think you are succeeding in this?
We came in with a two-year mandate to remove ASA from the bad news, and instead make the focus Cornel Fredericks winning three gold medals, or that young girl at the Youth Olympics. Now to fix a dent in a car takes some time, but to fix a dent in an image takes much longer, because people always remember the bad things. That said, the image of ASA in the continent is different to what you and I know… When we recently had the congress in Morocco, they said now Africa is back, because South Africa is back.
MA: Another of your earliest comments after election was that the sport needs business-minded people to run it, and that politicians are not good at doing that. In light of this, why has a CEO or business manager not yet been appointed?
The ASA Constitution is very clear: The staff are full-time, the President and Board are just volunteers. The position that I was appointed to is that of a politician in athletics, so there are things that I cannot do, which need to be done by an administrator. I have even refused to sign a new sponsorship deal, because I am not the CEO, and that sponsor is going to report to the office, not to me. We are talking about corporate governance and protocol, the Board must separate ourselves from the daily management. When you let politicians get into daily operations, things do not work.
So, we have appointed an interim manager in the office, Mr Pieter De Jager, since we do not have a CEO yet, and he is a technical person who understands the sport. This is because appointing a CEO is part of the challenges we still need to work through: Two former employees were employed as General Manager or CEO, one left last year, the other was suspended, and we have inherited those issues, so we have to study the contracts, and the CCMA, Labour Court and High Court rulings, so that when we do appoint a person, he or she will not be hit by a letter from the courts saying this job belongs to somebody else. We are first clearing the playing field, to ensure that when we do move, we move forward. Also, we don’t want a situation where the next Board takes over two years from now and says they don’t want the CEO we appointed, so we need to give our candidate an 18-month interim contract.
MA: Much has been said or written about the financial situation of the sport, largely centred on claims about financial mismanagement by previous employees or board members. Can you give us an update on the finances and tell us what plans are in place to improve the situation?
ASA was engulfed in a war with itself, and it went to the extent of the high courts. The remnants of that are still with us, and all we can do is manage that situation. The sport is slowly busy cleansing itself, which is making the investors and sponsors want to speak to us again – and they are calling us again, even some of those who moved away from the sport in the last few years, so we have even started the process of appointing a sponsorship and marketing agency to deal with these matters.
MA: On a related note, the last set of financial statements published on the ASA website are those of 2012. When will the 2013 financials be available?
The 2012 financial statements were actually not approved by council and the AGM, so we are dealing with that first, and then the 2013 figures will have to come as well. We only just recently commissioned auditors to audit the 2012 financials and take it to the correct platforms, because you can’t take a draft to government, or SASCOC or the IAAF. We have told everybody that we are coming in to clean up the mess, and we have to be mindful of due process.
MA: In attracting sponsors, one of the perceived limiting factors is the lack of TV coverage of athletics and road running. Are there any plans to extend TV coverage, and improve coverage, to grow the footprint of the sport?
ASA has a contract with the SABC giving the national broadcaster exclusive rights to broadcast athletics in this country, but that contract ends in December and we have already started negotiations with them to address the shortcomings of current coverage. I cannot divulge the details of these discussions as yet, but can say there is nothing to stop us from talking to other channels, to see where we are going to get the best value to package our product. Having said that, we can’t just blame the SABC, because ASA was in turmoil and the SABC was not always properly engaged, so there is very much room for improvement there as well.
MA: As a long-time ASA Board member, you undoubtedly came into the job with much knowledge of the situation, but after three months in the top position, have your perceptions of the job changed at all?
My perception then and now is the same. I’ve been part of athletics since 1981, and I’ve been involved at ASA for many years on various committees, so I knew exactly what would be the problems, and how these problems came about. That is why I said in our first Board meeting that we have to appoint a manager who is going to be in the office, who will account to us, because of what happened previously, the failure to separate the executive and non-executive capacities. We are also putting important structures back in place, like replacing the coaching, development, scientific, medical, doping and women’s committees, which had collapsed completely.
MA: Lastly, what is your long-term vision for the sport and how do you see us getting there?
I want to see athletics in this country taking its rightful place as it was in the 90s, when we were counted amongst the top countries in the world. I have been talking to various people around the world and they all see South Africa as a country with unlimited capability, and they all want to work with
our federation. What matters most is that our athletes must be given opportunity –
and that will separate those who are talented from those who are not, those who are disciplined, those who are hungry to go forward. Then the sky is the limit for South African athletics.