PHOENIX, Arizona, April 2. WITH two weeks to go before the start of Swimming South Africa's world championship selection trials in Port Elizabeth, media reports from South Africa are not focusing on who will make the world team, but how will their travel to Barcelona be funded?
On Sunday, an article in South Africa's Sunday Times first reported that all athletes who qualify for the FINA world championships will have to pay for their airfare to Spain, as well as foot the bill for hotel accommodations. With the original article from the Sunday Times not posted online, media outlets outside of South Africa began attributing an article by Sport24 that contained a quote from Bert Le Clos, the father of Olympic champion Chad Le Clos.
“It's pathetic that you have to (buy) your own flight tickets,” Bert Le Clos said in the Sunday Times article. “It's a disgrace when you consider the amount of medals and glory swimmers bring to this country. There are other teams, which I don't want to point out, that get millions but bring back nothing.”
With South Africa celebrating three medals from the London Olympics, the story seemed rather absurd on first glance at the Swimming World offices. Adding in the fact that the story was spreading around the world on April 1, the story was believed to be an April Fool's prank, and SwimmingWorld.TV's “Streamlined News” show incorrectly mentioned it as such.
Swimming South Africa's inability to pay for its athletes to attend international competitions comes months after losing its major sponsor Telkom, which had provided millions of dollars to the organization. The federation's revenue comes mostly from private sponsors, with the government contributing some money as well.
The loss of Telkom's sponsorship hit Swimming South Africa hard in the short term. Many athletes attending the short course world championships in Istanbul, Turkey, were asked to pay for part of their travel expenses, and a few athletes withdrew from the meet as a result.
The day after the original Sunday Times article was posted, various executives in the Swimming South Africa federation, as well as the South Africa Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC), said funding will be available for the country's top athletes for this summer's world championships.
Swimmers such as Le Clos and Cameron van der Burgh, who won Olympic medals in London, will be fully funded for the trip to Barcelona, said SASCOC CEO Tubby Reddy. Those athletes are part of the country's Operation Excellence Program, similar to USA Swimming's Athlete Partnership Plan, and SASCOC will completely cover their costs. Reddy said other South Africans who competed in finals at the Olympics — including Roland Schoeman and Suzaan von Biljon — will also be fully funded if they make the world championship team.
Others not part of the Operation Excellence Program would likely have to cover a portion of their costs. It is estimated that each athlete will have to pay no more than 3,000 rand for their trip, or $325.
“I think it is sad, that after winning three medals at last year's Olympics in London, South African Swimming can't find a sponsor for our team,” said 2004 Olympic champion Darian Townsend, who has elected to skip the world trials and focus on the 2013 World Cup series. He added that if he were to qualify for the world championship team, his sponsorship with A3 Performance would put him in conflict with South Africa's policy that all swimmers wear Arena apparel at the championships.
Though Swimming South Africa is finding itself in a monetary bind, its Olympic heroes appear to be financially stable. Le Clos and van der Burgh secured major sponsorships from watch and automobile corporations immediately after returning from London.
Shaun Adriaanse, CEO of Swimming South Africa, said things could change if the federation can find a sponsor to cover costs, but did not give a deadline date to secure funding. The world championship trials runs April 15-20 in Port Elizabeth.
“We can't beg and borrow money and have lots of noise in the media every time there is a big championship,” Adriaanse said in an article published in today's Times. “It is not sustainable. There needs to be a firm commitment from corporate South Africa in terms of how important are the Olympic Games and the participation of their brand in the Games.”