Liam Morgan

We are forever being told that governing bodies in sport always have the best interests of athletes at heart.

We are constantly peppered with an insistence that athletes are the focal point of everything these sports organisations do.

But these same organisations often offer plenty of evidence to the contrary.

While it is perhaps unfair to include every International Federation, worldwide governing body or National Olympic Committee (NOC) in this bracket, the number of examples of self-contradiction is too vast to ignore.

I was left thinking about this when reading the stories in South Africa regarding their men’s and women’s hockey teams at next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.

For the South African Hockey Association (SAHA), this is an all too familiar story. Both the men’s and women’s teams earned a place at Tokyo 2020 by winning their respective International Hockey Federation (FIH) Olympic Qualification event on home soil on Sunday (August 18).

Unfortunately for players on each side, it may not be enough to ensure they get the chance to represent their country at the Games in the Japanese capital, although the case is stronger for the men than the women at this stage.

This is because of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee’s (SASCOC) strict and prohibitive criteria, which prevented the men’s and women’s hockey teams - as well as the women’s rugby sevens squad - from competing at Rio 2016.

South Africa's men's and women's teams qualified for Tokyo 2020 at the weekend ©Africa Hockey
South Africa's men's and women's teams qualified for Tokyo 2020 at the weekend ©Africa Hockey

The SASCOC believes its athletes should qualify through the highest route possible and has regularly refused to recognise continental events as a legitimate pathway to an Olympic berth.

The conditions apply to all Olympic sports but the SASCOC has additional rules for the hockey teams.

"Continental qualification will only be considered if the team wins the continental qualification event and has attained a top two finish at a Hockey Series Final or attained directly through the FIH Olympic Qualification event," the regulations state.

The above puts the Olympic spot earned by the women’s team - clinched by winning a tournament - in severe jeopardy as they could only manage fourth place at an FIH Series Final in Valencia.

The men, on the other hand, finished second at a similar event in Bhubaneswar and will surely be given the Tokyo 2020 green light by the SASCOC. The organisation would be going against its own rules otherwise.

The SAHA is lobbying SASCOC to send both teams, which seems unlikely unless either the women’s team pull a rabbit out of the hat or the NOC scales back its selection criteria.

"The opportunity to attend an Olympic Games is massive for South African hockey on the world stage," SAHA chief executive Marissa Langeni told Sport24.

"Over the years both teams have shown that they have the competitiveness to play on the world stage.

"It would be detrimental to our sport if any of our teams were not given that opportunity and given the fact the we missed out in 2016, it would not bode well.

"I'm hopeful that SASCOC will do the right thing and that, given the men have met the criteria, they will consider them for being part of team South Africa."

South Africa's men are more likely to be allowed to compete at Tokyo 2020 than the women's team after finishing second at the FIH Series Finals in Bhubaneswar ©Getty Images
South Africa's men are more likely to be allowed to compete at Tokyo 2020 than the women's team after finishing second at the FIH Series Finals in Bhubaneswar ©Getty Images

SASCOC has hardly shown a predilection for doing the right thing in recent years - and not just when it comes to OIympic selection.

Its qualification criteria is restrictive and seemingly designed to prevent athletes from reaching their lifetime dream of competing at the Olympic Games in fear of the team embarrassing the nation by taking the odd hammering from a better-equipped nation.

While competing only to win is understandable in some ways, the Olympics are also about participating, where athletes from smaller countries are given the same stage as those from behemoths like the United States and China.

Yes, every athlete who doesn’t win has, by definition, lost. But that becomes irrelevant for those who see merely getting the chance to compete at the Games as a victory in itself.

The South African women’s hockey players will undoubtedly see it that way if they are put on the plane to Tokyo by SASCOC.

As it stands, their chances appear slim. The very body tasked with doing everything it can to help them achieve their dream is letting them down. Badly.

SASCOC is putting its own interests - ensuring its battered reputation is not further harmed by a poor sporting performance at an Olympic Games – above that of South African athletes.

The selection criteria could also have wider implications, including harming the sport at grassroots level. If there the chance of becoming an Olympian is going to be taken away from you in the future, some might start to question what the point of it all is. Why get involved in elite sport when SASCOC will probably rob you of your Olympic opportunity?

It is worth pointing out that, as well as being about participation, the Olympic Games is supposed to be the pinnacle and a platform for the best in the world to battle it out for medals and glory.

South Africa’s men’s hockey team are ranked 14th in the FIH standings, the women are two places further down, so it is fair to assume they will not be challenging the medals at Tokyo 2020, should they be allowed to participate.

But this focus on medals, a trend present in numerous other countries across the world, and only taking the "best of the best" to the Olympics has hardly worked out for SASCOC at recent Games.

South Africa claimed 10 medals at Rio 2016, two of which were gold, and only six at London 2012.

SASCOC’s attitude towards selection is one of a superpower Olympic nation, such as the US or China, without it actually being one.

It is high time SASCOC lessened its influence and allowed its teams and athletes who have earned Olympic qualification fair and square to compete at the Games. Tradition and precedent dictates this will be easier said than done.