Paying the price of an Olympic dream

Having missed out on Rio in 2016, the national hockey team has been chosen to go to this year’s Olympic Games. They’re now on a massive crowdfunding drive to get themselves prepared for Tokyo. But is this constant begging sustainable?

The South African public may have learnt the price of an Olympic dream – R44 million is the estimate given by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) – but we may never know the true cost some teams will pay for not showing up. It could be the loss of a generation of players, or the loss of hope in the future of the game. 

For any South African athlete dreaming of striding into the Japan National Stadium at the opening ceremony, not being able to attend the glorious Games is too ghastly to contemplate. It’s far easier to assume, or believe, that they’ll get there come hell or high infection rates. Yet, for some federations and their athletes, missing out on Tokyo is more than a distinct possibility; it’s a decision that rests on a knife-edge – and cash.

In the case of South African hockey, the price of an Olympic dream is estimated to be between R3.5 million and R5 million, and that’s just to get them through the preparations ahead of Tokyo. Sascoc has all but promised to pick up the tab to take the national team to the Games, but the players are taking nothing for granted. Missing out on Rio de Janeiro in 2016 clearly left them harbouring no illusions.

And so it started with a Facebook post by national hockey team coach Garreth Ewing. Instead of whining, as most users of the platform are wont to do, Ewing invited ideas and solutions while laying out the naked truth of the situation the team faces, in a genuine effort to ensure no player in his 16-man squad is left behind because of a lack of funding. The response to his post took him by surprise.

“I just said something along the lines of ‘Guys, we’re open to suggestions. We’re feeling like our backs are against the wall.’ Quite a few companies got in touch, including people who work in the sponsorship and branding space, which was really exciting. One of those was MatchKit and they came in with the idea of the crowd fund. Their platform lends itself to crowdfunding,” Ewing explains.

It seems extraordinary for a national team coach to have to resort to such methods to ensure an Olympic dream is kept alive. But such is the state of sports sponsorships in South Africa that even hockey, which boasts the support of more than 250 000 participants nationwide, is not guaranteed a real chance of making an impression at the Olympics because of a lack of funding. Fortunately for Ewing and his players, the digital begging bowl in the form of MatchKit’s crowdfund platform may be the saving grace they need with less than two months to go before the Games begin on 23 July.

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“It was just something that we felt we needed to push through. We need to find a way that works for us and we need to be in charge of ourselves. We understand that getting a title sponsor in this day and age is more and more difficult, and I think that the sponsorship and funding model has definitely shifted over the last few years. You can even look at the challenges that some of our bigger sports face with bigger media footprints,” Ewing says. 

“What’s encouraging is that the conversation has become something that’s front of mind for people, and we’ve had some really interesting engagements as a result of just putting ourselves and our situation out there, so we’re raising money. We’ve gone through $8 000, which is still a relatively small amount but it’s definitely a huge step in the right direction.

“This is not about making money just to pay salaries. It’s actually just to keep money in the players’ pockets, which is tough. So that’s our reality. We will need at least R8 million to R10 million to get to the World Cup in January 2023. That’s a drop in the ocean globally, from a sports point of view. But right now, that is what we need.”

Enter the professionals 

MatchKit’s platform has made it simple for sponsors and individuals to get behind the team. The details of the team’s requirements have been shared publicly to be as transparent and pragmatic as possible. They include 200 hockey balls (R70 000), 300 Covid-19 tests (R255 000), 81 days’ access to a physiotherapist (R243 000), 1 498 hotel rooms (R1 121 250), 107 international flights (R1 605 000), 50 domestic flights (R100 000) and 4 494 meals (R674 100).

So is this always going to be the story of hockey, seeking financial assistance wherever it can, just to be able to compete on the international stage? 

“I hope not. That’s why what I’m really encouraged about is that we’ve got companies like The Sponsorshop and MatchKit that have come on board. They swim in these waters, so they’re not necessarily discouraged if a conversation doesn’t go the way we hope it will go,” says Ewing. 

“That professionalism has been really encouraging to work with and I hope that that’s something we can continue. I can only hope that it’s not going to be just the status quo forever. It has been for the last few years. What I hope is that the hockey community itself understands where we are, because I know, within this 250 000-odd people who play hockey in South Africa week on week, there are people who can come to the party.”

However, getting to the Olympic Games is one thing; being prepared is another ball game altogether. Crucial friendlies against Namibia and Malaysia hang in the balance, and the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia has been cancelled. If the national team is unable to test its strength, it may limp into Tokyo undercooked and risk losing years of progress in taking the game forward in South Africa. The team has never finished better than 10th place at an Olympic Games before. The cliché that it’s all to play for couldn’t be more true in South African hockey’s case.

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“I do hope that people understand that this is not just about limping into the Olympics and then, suddenly, our financial situation changes and just goes away. That’s an ongoing process. There’s work going on behind the scenes at Saha [the South African Hockey Association] and at Sascoc, but we want to be as proactive as possible,” says Ewing.

“We actually had huge competition all lined up for January of this year in Cape Town. Obviously, because of the second [Covid-19] wave, we had to cancel the whole lot. But my big worry is how undercooked we’re going to be. We’re literally now the only Olympic competitor that isn’t playing. New Zealand and Australia are locked away, but they are training really hard and they’ve got a lot of their local competitions going on. All the European teams are busy with international competition, including against India and Argentina. My big worry is that we’re just going to be underprepared.”

Much of Ewing’s trepidation, as with most South Africans, lies in the uncertainty the Covid-19 pandemic has wrought over the past 16 months. The country’s response to the global health crisis – and its sluggish vaccine rollout – may play a crucial role in how the national hockey team is positioned in Japan come July. South Africa faces more global travel restrictions than almost any country in the world, with about 120 countries barring South Africans from crossing their borders.

“Who knows what’s right and wrong? Who knows who’s doing a good job and who isn’t? I’m really worried about what kind of travel restrictions are going to impact us. Just the quarantine actions are also really difficult, because some countries obviously can come here relatively easily and other countries can’t come here at all. We’ve got the same situation. If we, for example, lose out on Malaysia coming here, I don’t know what we can do instead. So everything feels like it’s on a bit of a knife-edge at the moment.”

Covid-19 effect 

For the better part of the past year, South Africa’s national hockey team has been mothballed, unable to meet in person, let alone play hockey at any suitable level. It has meant Ewing has had to find new ways of keeping the team together and focused on the Olympic dream on the horizon. “We’d actually kind of put ourselves into quite a good position in terms of our preparation and then, obviously, taking what’s now become more than a year off has been tough, and it’s tough mentally for the guys as well as physically,” Ewing said.

One cannot imagine a Springbok rugby player or Bafana Bafana football player appealing to the public for funding to afford training camp attendance and the personal costs associated with that, but the hockey fraternity has become accustomed to leaning on sponsors and individual benefactors to fund basic costs. “We’re trying to stay as in control of our own situation as possible, especially the preparation stuff that’s not necessarily going to be picked up by anybody. We want to be in control of that,” Ewing says. “We’re doing our best with that.”

Individual hockey players are in the unenviable position of having to raise their own money to cover the costs of focusing solely on the Olympics. With hockey being an amateur sport, many players have to give up their jobs or work part-time to be able to devote the required number of hours to their game and stand a chance of being picked for Ewing’s squad. Each player has to raise roughly R50 000 to remain in the frame for a Tokyo berth. It’s a scenario that doesn’t sit well with the national coach but he has learnt to accept that this is the reality in hockey.

“I’m painfully aware of it. We are fortunate that there are a lot of players who have individual support – people who help them behind the scenes – and we’re always grateful for that and we don’t take it for granted, but ideally it shouldn’t work that way,” Ewing says.

Picking players with money 

Up-and-coming goalkeeper Siyavuya Nolutshungu is perfectly situated to assess the sponsorship landscape and the potential a sport such as hockey holds. As a client services manager at Nielsen Sports in Johannesburg, Nolutshungu has insights into the data and potential opportunities that await sponsors in a post-Covid world. He also holds dear an Olympics dream that he is working passionately to achieve.

“It didn’t look at all possible when we all started this. But now we started to pick up momentum and, slowly but surely, it’s becoming more realistic. Obviously, having to go out to people and ask for sponsors, there are ways that I’ve found in my industry to make it lucrative for the sponsor,” Nolutshungu says. 

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“Hopefully, they’ll see that if we get half a chance to go to the Olympic Games, and with a stroke of luck we make it through to the play-offs and our ranking bumps up from 14 plays to 10, that’s an opportunity for sponsors to come in and say, ‘Could they [the team] potentially achieve a podium finish in 2023 at the World Cup? Could they be contenders at the next Olympic Games in 2024?’ There are big opportunities, especially for rights holders who want to become involved in the future, and that is where I believe there’s so much out there.”

Ewing, however, wouldn’t want his players distracted by the pursuit of sponsorships all the time. He has insisted they focus on the task at hand on the field, and that with national colours should come the right to be fully supported.

“What I’ve just tried to do is educate the players that this is the situation, and they have to be as proactive as possible to make sure that ultimately they’re not taking money out of their own pockets. What we want to do is help them to understand the realities, be grateful for what we get, but also demand what is your right – that when you’re at this level you should be fully supported,” Ewing says.

“The worst nightmare for us is that we are forced to pick only the players who can afford it. We haven’t had to do that yet, but that’s a harsh reality and it’s something that hangs over our heads because obviously that has a huge impact on transformation processes. It has a huge impact on selection processes. That’s why it becomes so important for us to become financially independent.”

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