How Wayde Van Niekerk’s Talent Brought Together Two Sportswomen From South Africa’s Divided Sports Past By Cheryl Roberts

16 Aug

IMG_7526When divided pasts create moments of togetherness, the resultant relationships and subsequent impacts can be devastatingly beautiful and fascinating. In a South African society, whose people were once divided by vicious apartheid legislation and kept apart, the democratic era has seen people forging new relationships across colour and neighbourhood lines.

Two women, divided and kept apart by apartheid met up through athletics in democratic South Africa and came together to mould and guide a precocious teenage boy talent into a world and Olympic champion and world record holder.

One is Odessa Swarts, the mother of the boy, Wayde van Niekerk now a grown up man and the other is Anna Botha, the coach of this Olympic champion talent.

Both Swarts and Botha were separated as citizens because of skin colour during apartheid; one was oppressed, the other was privileged by apartheid, in both occupied Namibia and apartheid South Africa.

Both were athletes, with Botha being much older than Swarts. The two athletes participated in different athletics structures. Botha grew up in the apartheid supporting athletics structure while Swarts grew up in anti-apartheid, non-racial sport and athletics. The establishment, apartheid supporting athletics body of Botha’s wanted to have apartheid sport representing apartheid South Africa while the anti-apartheid athletics body that Swarts belonged to was against apartheid in sport and society and also supported the international isolation of apartheid South Africa. The two athletics structures were antagonistic and at war with ach other over apartheid.

The two women athletes never met or knew each other during the struggle years against apartheid. Botha has no known history of calling out apartheid and its wrongs while Swarts, participated in and supported anti-apartheid sport.

Apartheid hindered both their athletics lives because oppressed sports people didn’t want apartheid sport internationally recognised and those playing apartheid sport desperately wanted to play international sport. But apartheid isolated sports people, black and white, oppressed and oppressor.

The unified sports era brought together non-racial sports structures and establishment sport; together they were mandated to develop sport for all South Africans and represent a democratic South Africa.

Their love for athletics and the talent of a precocious teenage boy entering university would bring the two women together; women from different trenches of life.

It was in Bloemfontein at the University of Free State, a few years after Wayde van Niekerk’s family moved to Bloemfontein that the anti-apartheid and apartheid women athletes would meet. The coming together was first year university student Wayde van Niekerk and the discussion and agreement was how best to protect him as an athlete and unleash his athletics prowess.

As athletics coach at Free State university, Anna Botha became van Niekerk’s coach, guiding his athletics with a change from the 200m to the 400m, to SA champion, African champion, Commonwealth Games medalist, world champion and now Olympic champion and world record holder.

Together, the two women with their pivotal roles of mother and coach from different athletics pasts, one inhumane and unjust and the other privileged and white-favoured, would show up and place women prominently within SA sport at the time of the Rio Olympics when SA’s most successful Olympic medal haul had been attained only by sports men.

They have succeeded in the creation of a world champion, Olympic champion, world record holder. And this Olympic champion gave them both the chance to represent a democratic South Africa, internationally accepted around the world. Apartheid is now in the past and the new dawn ushered in has allowed the older generation of oppressed and apartheid’s privileged to bask in glory attained by those who benefited from democracy in a country with a devastatingly inhumane past.

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