Dare we believe, based on Goldman Sachs research on the Olympics, that SA is punching below its weight when it comes to its growth potential? Goldman Sachs, famously dubbed the "great vampire squid" by Rolling Stone a few years ago, writes an "Olympics and Economics" report every four years.
The Goldman analysis predicts how many medals a country will get by mixing its own bespoke "growth environment score" (GES) with a few other variables (like population size).
This GES model guides Goldman’s thinking about a country’s long-term potential. It encapsulates its view on the economic, political and institutional environment "that affect productivity, performance and growth".
"Gold does go to where the growth environment is best: countries with better GES scores and higher populations tend to get the most medals," it said.
Goldman’s Rio predictions, released last month, were close — with a few exceptions.
The US, for example, got 121 medals, beating Goldman’s estimate of 106; Britain also outperformed with 67 medals, rather that 59. Some other countries fell noticeably short. China was projected to win 89 medals (result: 70); Brazil was projected to win 22 (result: 19); and South Korea was projected to bring home 28 medals (result: 21).
SA, as everyone knows, brought home 10 medals — including two golds, courtesy of Wayde van Niekerk and Caster Semenya. This was far more than the seven medals that Goldman expected SA to win .
Other polls also underestimated SA’s ultimate medal toll.
The Wall Street Journal , for example, underestimated both SA’s haul (it said we’d get eight) and the US (which it put at 102).
The Rio games matched SA’s best performance. In Antwerp in 1920, SA also brought home 10 medals, including gold for Bevil Rudd (grandson of De Beers’ co-founder Charles Rudd) in the 400m athletics, Louis Raymond in tennis, and Clarence Walker in boxing. In 1952, SA again took 10 medals, as two women won gold — Esther Brand (high jump) and Joan Harrison (backstroke).
To be sure, Rio was a fine performance — but it was no thanks to the suits at Sascoc, whose sole contribution seemed to be raiding the rejects bin at a China Mall knock-off outlet for Team SA’s official tracksuits.
When it comes to financial transparency, Sascoc has shown a remarkable disinclination to open its books. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given talk that while athletes struggle, Sascoc is sponsoring all-expenses paid junkets for politicians to attend global events — as was the case with swimming’s Fina World Championships in May.
Fortunately, Sascoc got a R70m injection from the Lotto shortly before the Olympics — money which its president, Gideon Sam, joked meant "we can go to Rio".
Sam has a chequered past himself, dating back to 2008 when he was accused of trying to bribe lawyer Norman Arendse to swing the R10bn welfare tender in favour of Serge Belamant’s Net1. (Sam has vehemently denied the allegation.)
Arendse, who was chairing the SA Social Security Agency’s bid adjudication committee, said Sam asked for a meeting to discuss "a sports matter and a business opportunity".
"He described himself as a ‘consultant/lobbyist’ for (Net1’s grant arm) and said he had an open chequebook. I understood this to mean (he) wanted to bribe me," Arendse said.
Arendse chased him away, saying: "You have a cheek."
It’s clear then that the real problem with SA sport isn’t the lack of talent or the athletes — it’s the people running it.
There are some rather obvious comparisons to be made with our most venal politicians, who frequently end up getting in the way of a good idea.
In Rio, our athletes found a way to hit their potential by moving past the roadblocks. SA’s wider society has a habit of doing this too — illustrating why the pundits frequently underestimate the country.