In an international sporting exchange which has its firm roots buried in a common language and culture, we tell the story of regions from two countries, Belgium and South Africa, cooperating to develop athletics, and foster good relations.
A common language
The Free State province in central South Africa has produced some great athletes such as Frantz Kruger and Johan Cronje. The most famous Free State athlete however is Zola Budd who marked athletics history in the early eighties. She lives in Bloemfontein and has a street named after her in the province’s capital.
In 2000, Free State University lecturer Evert Venter created a Sports Department researching into training methods and the principles of Sports Science. From the very first, the project gained the support of the government of the Flanders region in Belgium, with 'Bloso', the Flemish sports directorate, providing financial, scientific and training support. It was a cooperation between Flanders and Free State founded on the common roots of Flemish and the Dutch language which the native Afrikaans speak in Free State.
Belgian athletes and coaches share knowledge
Jan Du Toit, manager of the High Performance Center at the FSSSI, explains the mission of the Institute. “When South Africa moved into a new era political and social era in 1994, big efforts were made to develop the sports infrastructure in the country. Adequate academic knowledge on biomechanics and physiology was also sufficiently available. But there was a lack of expertise on training methods and principles, because our history of sports isolation had prevented us sharing knowledge and participating in the latest taining developments that had taken place in elite sport.”
“Therefore we started to invite the best Belgian middle and long distance runners on training camps to Bloemfontein. We wanted to see how they trained and to learn from their approach. From 2003 on, we organised clinics with Belgian coaches and athletes in different corners of the Free State, to bring their knowledge to our local coaches and teachers. The spin-off of those clinics has been huge, it contributed a lot to distance running in the Free State.”
Beneficial effect has gone wider than just elite sport
But, beyond any expectation, the impact of this project went a lot further still. “The participation in these clinics has been massive and the results are unbelievable. We’ve seen thousands of children engage in running”, says Anna Gutter, manager in the Development Department of the FSSSI.
“The Free State is one of the poorer provinces in South Africa. The children here have never had the occasion to meet and greet international sportsmen. The Belgian athletes are heroes to them and we see a lot of children engage in running after having attended these clinics. We focus on distance running, because it requires no facilities, most of the children even run barefoot. Some of them need to run 15km to 20km to school every day.”
Athletics produces the highest benefit
“Of all the sports that the FSSSI is developing, athletics produces the highest benefit, as well in terms of high level knowledge exchange and in terms of global sports participation. That’s why we definitely want to continue and extend this project”, confirms Jan Du Toit.
“It is now at cruising speed. Organisers, coaches and athletes are well experienced in establishing effective programs. The clinics that we held in Sasolburg and in Bethlehem last weekend turned out to be a massive success.”
“In Sasolburg there were about 50 coaches and teachers from the northern Free State region to attend a clinic on ‘Running technique and rhythm’. It was about a practical approach of translating biomechanics into training exercises and methods.”
“In Bethlehem we reached about 300 children from primary and secondary school. The best athletes of the region participated in the training session from the Belgian athletes. That included endurance running, interval training, hurdle technique and muscle stability training. From that choice of sessions, our local coaches learned a lot. After that, the Belgian athletes organised a special training session for the youngest age groups. They showed us how you can make athletics fun and attractive for young kids.”
“Next week we take the group to Bethulie and to Welkom in the southern and western regions of Free State. In 2006, Belgian coaches will be lecturing on training at the FSSSI and on different places in the province. Our coaches are already eager to subscribe.”
Future Free State champions in the making
Middle distance runner Joeri Jansen is one of the Belgian athletes on the current training camp in Bloemfontein. He has been coming to South Africa for 5 years now. “The first time I was invited by Andy Norman to come to Potchefstroom. I came in touch with South African athletes such as Hezekiel Sepeng, Werner Botha and Johan Cronje. Training with them helped me to reach 1:44 level at 800m.”
Now Jansen heads a group of Belgian athletes at the Free State training camp. The ten athlete strong delegation includes Krijn Van Koolwijk, Pieter Desmet and Stephanie De Croock. In total six of the athletes are members of the team “Atletiek Vlaanderen” that is sponsored by the Flemish government.
“There are many talented young athletes in the Free State”, confirms Jansen. “There were kids who easily followed us on a sub-40 minutes 10K-run whilst running barefoot. If the Free Sate can develop this programme there is little doubt that they will produce future champions. And for the Belgian athletes it’s a great opportunity to train in ideal conditions at the FSSSI facilities here in Bloemfontein.”
Ivo Hendrix for the IAAF