Gideon Sam’s 14-year Sascoc-up

The sports confederation and Olympic committee president runs afoul of a damning ministerial inquiry, while major sponsor cuts financial contribution from R100m to R10m.

South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) president Gideon Sam is a man with much to be concerned about, and doping pigeons may not necessarily be the least of them. For years, Sam’s multisport controlling body has found itself in crisis, either by design or as a consequence of being the nexus of sporting excellence in South Africa.

Formed in 2004 in response to the then Rainbow Nation’s mediocre showing at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, Sascoc emerged as the torch bearer of our future Olympic prospects – and yet all evidence presented up to now suggests it’s an organisation in ruins.

Leaked report 

The alleged leaked report by the ministerial committee of inquiry into Sascoc, currently in the hands of the national broadcaster, is said to be harsh on Sam. It apparently details various forms of mismanagement on the part of Sam and former chief executive Tubby Reddy. Without sight of the official report yet, the current claims against Sam have not been tested, but the stench around the sports administrator’s management of Sascoc has lingered in the air for years and forced government’s hand in setting up the inquiry.

Perhaps Sascoc’s most public offence is the fashion crime committed against its elite 2016 Rio Olympic athletes when it forced them to wear tracksuits that made them look like the spawn of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Teletubbies. But while Twitter and newspaper headlines laughed, the fashion faux pas signalled a deeper unravelling within the organisation.

According to Sascoc’s records, those ill-fitting tracksuits were part of the Chinese manufacturer of the tracksuits and SAA’s R15 million product sponsorship for Rio 2016. The committee probe was announced in 2017 by former sports minister and Cyril Ramaphosa casualty Thulas Nxesi. The inquiry – in the aftermath of the dismissal of Reddy, chief financial officer Vinesh Maharaj and senior manager Jean Kelly, who were found guilty of misconduct and maladministration during a disciplinary hearing in December 2017 – was to open the can of worms that would detail the trail of maladministration, factional battles, financial mismanagement and sexual harassment plaguing the controlling body.

The claims laid bare at the inquiry came home to roost this week when the report was leaked to the SABC before it could be made public by Minister of Sports and Recreation Tokozile Xasa.

List of scandals

Down this rabbit hole of scandals lie allegations of sexual harassment and victimisation against Reddy by former Sascoc head of coaching Desiree Vardhan. Vardhan claimed that when she refused Reddy’s sexual advances, she was forced to work in a “threatening environment” and her computer was found to have been hacked in an attempt to squash her allegations against Reddy. A forged letter was sent to the media from Vardhan’s computer, stating the allegations against Reddy were false, and were orchestrated by Sam and Sascoc board member Kobus Marais.

During the inquiry hearings earlier this year, under the chairmanship of retired judge Ralph Zulman, Sam lamented that he, as head of Sascoc, had too much to worry about. “I must worry about guys who say, ‘Sam, those guys are doping their birds in pigeon flying.’ So instead of now worrying about Caster [Semenya], I must now worry about doped pigeons in pigeon racing,” he told the Zulman Inquiry.

There are no records of laughter at this point in the proceedings, and so the assumption is that pigeon doping is a serious Sascoc consideration and not just a matter for the birds. Or that Sam had taken his eye off the ball.

The committee of inquiry has apparently recommended a separate forensic investigation into Sam and Reddy for conflict of interest in relation to the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund. Sam’s vote in support of co-opting members on to the board is seen as irrational and possibly unlawful.

Sam confirmed receiving a copy of a summary of the ministerial report last week and was given 14 days to respond. But while Sascoc’s latest existential crisis plays out very publicly, another layer was peeled back and revealed not too long ago in Cape Town, on 4 September, in the open meeting rooms of the portfolio committee on Sport and Recreation, chaired by Beauty Dlulane.

Here, represented by Sam and Ravi Govender, a member of Sascoc’s finance committee, Sascoc presented its progress report, acknowledged the dark cloud that hung over the organisation, and proceeded to paint an even more grim picture of its future.
Sascoc’s major funder, the National Lotteries Commission (NLC), has cut its funding to the sporting body from R100 million to R10 million, which threatens Sascoc’s ability to produce competitive teams for major games. The NLC is responsible for 43% of Sascoc’s total funding, Govender told the committee. Olympic sponsors make up 23% of revenue, 12% comes from government, and 9% is received from broadcasting rights.

The reason given for the reduction in funding is that the NLC now sees Sascoc as a federation, which qualifies for a maximum of R5 million at a time, with a year’s cooling-off period in between. The NLC, however, is also the sole funder of Sascoc’s Operation Excellence, which is responsible for producing and funding athletes such as Wayde van Niekerk, Semenya and Akani Simbine. Put simply, without NLC funding, Sascoc would not be able to deliver medal hopefuls to international competitions, because more than half of its expenditure goes towards high performance, and 18% is spent on team delivery. Administration costs, salaries and board fees make up 16% of the organisation’s expenditure.

South Africa’s glorious showing at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games yielded 13 gold medals, 11 silver and 13 bronze, but it also cost Sascoc R1.4 million in bonus payments of R50 000, R25 000 and R15 000 respectively to athletes. These athletes’ coaches were also paid bonuses. Semenya broke the 1 500m women’s games record and swimmer Tatjana Schoenmaker set a new African record in the 200m breaststroke, for which they were rewarded. At the African Youth Games, South Africa amassed 29 medals: 15 gold, 11 silver and three bronze.

The NLC has committed to fund the 2020 Olympic Games only, which makes Govender nervous enough to appeal to the committee to intervene on Sascoc’s behalf to ask government for more funding, and convince the NLC to reconsider its reduction in funding. That appeal quickly turned on its heels and became a veiled threat from Sascoc that if it doesn’t receive more funding, it will not be sending teams to any games.

Govender admitted to the portfolio committee that the past 18 months had been rough on Sascoc, with revenue sitting at roughly R185 million – an increase of just 0.5% compared to 2016. Govender further revealed that Sascoc had terminated the services of its auditor, Deloitte, by mutual agreement. A new auditor is being sought, and Sascoc is committed to having its final financial statements ready before 8 December, in time for its annual general meeting.

In a final act of gentle flagellation, Sascoc committed to learning from its mistakes and moving forward – essentially slapping itself on the wrists. Sam also revealed that Sascoc owes the City of Johannesburg more than R1.7 million in electricity bills for Olympic House in Houghton, which belongs to Nedbank.

During the inquiry hearings, Sascoc vice-president Barry Hendricks revealed that Reddy’s personal assistant had flown first class on a business trip in 2016, at a cost of R90 000. Sascoc also spent an inordinate amount of money, amounting to R6.2 million, on legal fees paid to law firm Norton Rose Fulbright to defend cases in which athletes had taken it to court: one for not being selected to compete in Rio 2016, and another for damages against Sascoc for an injury caused by a falling object at an athletics stadium. Sascoc also spent more than R5.6 million on Reddy, Maharaj and Kelly’s independent disciplinary hearing.

At the portfolio committee meeting, it was revealed that Sam’s deputy, Hajera Kajee, would be stepping down. Sam was shocked by this and had not received a resignation letter from Kajee. Sam clarified that board members are removed once they turn 70, and so Kajee is set to leave at the annual general meeting on 8 December.

Sam said he would also be stepping down at the end of next year. The release of the report could hasten Sam’s departure, although Ali Bacher, who was part of the committee of inquiry, insists the report is not damaging to Sam as president.  

Turnaround strategy

The centrepiece of Sascoc’s presentation to the portfolio committee, its oars to get itself out of this foul-smelling creek, is a “turnaround strategy”. Poorly designed PowerPoint slides were presented to the portfolio committee in Cape Town. In it were proposals to appoint a new financial head to “drive austerity measures”, streamline financial reporting, and prepare for the much-anticipated 2017/18 audit. Sascoc will also appoint a new sponsorship expert to attract more partners at a contingency fee of 16.5%.

While the latest chapter in the colourful history of Sascoc has only just begun with the committee of inquiry making its findings known, Sascoc’s historical baggage, and dealing with the NLC’s abandonment and other potential fallouts, could still linger with the stench of mismanagement – and pigeon poop.

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