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March 2, 2000


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Stopped in their stride

Cedric D'Souza

South Africa had been away from the international scene for so many years following an International Olympic Committee ban on the country because of its apartheid policies. So when the ban was lifted at the start of the last decade, a huge sigh of relief was visible as the country could compete with the rest of the world and display its prowess and skills in various fields.

Any athlete worth his salt will say that the most important event he would like to be part of is the Olympics. And the pinnacle of any athlete's dream is to win an Olympic gold medal. If these are not possible then at least he/she would like to be a part of the greatest sporting spectacle on earth. Because it is one event where athletes from all over the world compete under equal circumstances, share the same life and eat the same food.

Thus, when South Africa won the African Games last year there was much jubilation, as it earned them a berth at the 2000 Sydney Games. In the process, they beat a vastly improved Egyptian team to make the cut and avoided playing in the pre-Olympic qualifier -- which will feature teams like Pakistan, Spain, Korea, Argentina, Belgium, New Zealand, Japan, Malaysia, Switzerland, England, Poland and Belarus, from which six will qualify.

However, their joy was cut short by the National Olympic Committee of South Africa's (NOCSA), the apex body within South Africa, which surprisingly decided to exclude the team from the South Africa's Olympic contingent. NOCSA said it felt that the men's team did not have any scope of finishing among the top nine teams in the men's competition. They based their theory on the fact that the team finished tenth at the last Olympics in Atlanta.

In the words of NOCSA president Sam Ramasamy, "The South African hockey team has been prevented from competing, despite qualifying, because their level of play is said to be insufficient to represent the country - that is that they would not finish in the top nine."

To Giles Bonnet and the rest of the team, it must have been a rude awakening after having struggled to give off their best at the African Games. As a coach, I wholeheartedly sympathise with him and hope that wiser sense prevails and the team will be there in Sydney.

The South African team has worked extremely hard over the last decade under previous coach Gavin Featherstone and present maestro Giles Bonnet. They have instilled in the players a confidence and belief that they are second to none. And, if you have been witness to any of the matches South Africa has played in the last five years, you will undoubtedly say that they are a very good, all-round team that will run you ragged and fight till the last second. In fact, the team boasts of probably two of the best players in contemporary hockey in goalkeeper Brian Myburg and striker Greg Nicol.

Indeed, it is sad that such fate should befall the team. One feels prompted to ask NOSCA why at all did it allow the team to participate in the African Games if it did not want it to go to the Olympics. NOSCA knew four years ago that South Africa finished tenth at the last Games and hence should have made its decision then itself.

Which brings to mind the question - Does every athlete/team participate only to win? Has NOSCA forgotten that true sportsmanship is all about trying your best, and acknowledging defeat to a more competent opponent is the basis of true Olympic spirit.

The South African team has won tremendous support from the hockey fraternity for the manner in which they have so sportingly accepted NOSCA's decision. Whatever their inner feelings, they have not let them come in the way of their game -- and for me this speaks volumes for Giles and his team, who continue to go about their task of playing their hearts out in international tournaments.

Soon after the ruling, South Africa played a four-nation tournament in Egypt where India, Switzerland and Egypt were the other teams. And they increased pressure on their Olympic body in the face of adversity by winning the tournament after recording significant victories over the traditionally strong Egyptians and current Asian champions India.

I for one strongly condemn NOCSA's decision to exclude the team based on speculation that they will not finish among the top nine. I do believe that this is very questionable especially as the team is strong and committed and is easily capable of a top nine finish.

In spite of NOSCA's decision, the South African Hockey Federation has repeatedly made it clear to the Australian Hockey Federation that they are still keen to participate in the double leg four-nation tournament, from April 1, which features Germany, India and Australia. With the international event now less than six weeks away, the Australian Hockey Association (AHA) agreed to hold out on replacing the South Africans while discussions continue.

The South Africa Hockey Association is hopeful that NOCSA will reverse its decision in the face of mounting pressure on the issue both domestically and internationally.

The International Hockey Federation slammed NOCSA's decision by saying it is "extremely disconcerting" and "likely to greatly damage the sport in that continent".

These are the forthright words of the FIH president Juan Angel Calzado.

"The FIH qualification system is based on the IOC's principle of universality, which aims to achieve reasonable global participation for the purposes of development. The FIH system, in line with this philosophy, gives automatic entrance to Continental Games champions. As a result of the decision by NOCSA, there will be no African representation in the men's Olympic Hockey tournament, which, ultimately, is a major blow to the development of the sport in South Africa and the African continent."

NOSCA, are you listening?

Cedric D'Souza

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