A string of top performances by South African sprinters in recent weeks has put athletics in the local spotlight. Akani Simbine ran the fastest ever 100m outside of South Africa at the Diamond League meeting in Rome (10.08 seconds), only for this to be bettered a few days later by Henricho Bruintjies (10.06 seconds). Anaso Jobodwana has twice broken the national 200m record this year, which he now holds at 20.04 seconds.
He has also run a season-opening 10.13 seconds in the 100m. It is unprecedented for South Africa to have numerous sprinters performing at this level on the international stage. So, what has brought about this change?
Elite sports performance is complex, and no single aspect of an athlete’s preparation can be isolated as the one key to success. The training plan, strength and conditioning, technique, psychological preparation and medical management are just some of the essentials that an athlete needs to have in place in order to perform at their best. To manage and execute in all of these areas to the extent required in elite sport would be an impossible task for a coach and athlete in isolation.
Jobodwana (who is based out of the World Athletics Centre in Phoenix, USA), Bruintjies and Simbine (both from Tuks Athletics at the University of Pretoria) are benefitting from structures that connect coaches with a sport science and medical support team. The Pretoria-based athletes are both scholarship holders at the University of Pretoria, enabling them to complete their tertiary education and alleviating some of the financial burden while training to compete against the best in the world. Tuks athletes are also supported by the High Performance Centre, where Simbine is currently a sponsored athlete, covering many of his sports science and medical needs.
“Sport science” is often touted as a major contributor to success in elite sport, but, too often there is a misconception that an isolated sport science assessment will provide all the answers needed to enhance performance. In reality, a systematic approach is required; otherwise all you are left with is a set of numerical data. If testing is conducted systematically, however, careful interpretation of the data can provide valuable information on which coaching decisions can be based.
The High Performance Centre structure has created an environment where Simbine and his coach work closely with a strength and conditioning specialist, have an open line with a sports doctor and physiotherapist, and access to systematic biomechanical and physiological analysis. Together, the athlete, coach and support team are working towards the same goal. The recent results of South African sprinters have many people talking about the potential of a 4x100m relay team, and the possibility of a medal at the 2016 Olympic Games.
Based on the performances of Jobodwana, Simbine and Bruinjites, and the handful of athletes who would contend for the fourth spot, South Africa would certainly field a team capable of challenging for a bronze medal, on paper. The national record of 38.35 seconds, which was set in the fourth-place finish at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, would have placed fourth at this year’s IAAF World Relays and fifth at the 2012 Olympics. In order to make the step up to a podium finish, the relay squad will need to find a home that provides them with at least the same support structures that some of the individual athletes are currently enjoying.
Story credit: Dr Helen Bayne Photo credit: Reg Caldecott