Professor Tim Noakes (MD, DSc) and Ross Tucker (BSc. Hons)

Tim Noakes is Professor in the Discovery Health Chair of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town and co-founder with Morne du Plessis of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. He is one of few South Africans rated as an A1 scientist by the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa. Ross Tucker is a PhD student at the University of Cape Town.

The 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games again focused the national mind on the relative competitiveness of South Africans in international sport. Since there cannot be a definitive measure of what constitutes success in a major sporting competition like the Olympic or Commonwealth Games, different commentator interpreted the outcome according to their particular bias; those who draw benefit from their positions in South African sport were more inclined to interpret the outcome positively whereas those without such attachment were less likely to be as compliant in their assessment.

But the state of a Nation’s sport cannot be, nor should it ever be assessed solely on the basis of performance in a single major international competition like the Commonwealth or Olympic Games. For in either competition but especially in the Olympic Games, South Africa’s relatively small medal count can easily be distorted by the aberrant performances of a few especially gifted athletes, many of whom may not even train in South Africa. Rather what is needed is a more thorough analysis, subject to frequent independent review; much as occurs of the performance of all companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Only in this way can the real international competitiveness of South African sport be determined including the impact of initiatives aimed at improving our international standing. More importantly without a valid yardstick, there is no measure to evaluate the accountability of those whose fiduciary responsibility is to improve our sport.

As an initial step to address these questions, UCT doctoral student in Exercise Science, Ross Tucker, was recently asked to develop a system to evaluate the current international standing of South African sport. In this initial analysis, we measure the current international competitiveness of 5 major South African sports – soccer, athletics, cricket, hockey and rugby – including an analysis of changes over the past 5 – 10 years. The results show that with the exception of rugby and to a lesser extent hockey, all show a similar trend.

The current international standing of South African soccer.

In 1994, South African was ranked about 100th in world soccer. Thereafter followed a period of rapid improvement so that by 1997, the team was ranked 16th in the world. Since then, with the exception of a period between 2000 and 2002 when the team stabilized at a position around 20th in the world, the trend has been downward. By the beginning of 2006, South Africa was ranked 49th in the world, the lowest ranking since December 1995. During this same period, the performance of Bafana Bafana in the African Cup of Nations has deteriorated progressively from victory in 1996, to beaten finalists in 1998, to third place in 1998, to beaten quarterfinalists in 2000, to first round eliminations in 2002 and 2004. Unchecked this trend predicts that within two years South Africa will be ranked outside the top 16 African nations and will fail to qualify for the 2006 African Cup of Nations. Currently South Africa is ranked 8th in Africa, also the lowest standing since December 1995.

The response of the soccer administrators to this decline has been to appoint new coaches at regular intervals. Thus during a period of 8 years, there have been 9 different appointments with one coach being appointed twice. Four of these appointments were “temporary” in a “caretaker” capacity and were made in the months immediately preceding major international competitions including the World Cup and the African Cup of Nations. Since Trott Moloto was removed in 2001, no coach has been able to improve the world standing of South African soccer.

The assessment of the most recently dismissed national coach, Stuart Baxter, is the following: “One of the problems is they think they are much better than they really are. I suspect they will go for a Brazilian coach because they think the world champions are the only ones above them. It is the same at club level. Ask a Kaizer Chiefs fan how they would do against Juventus and they’d say they’d win 3-0. The trouble is there is nothing there. They will upgrade the facilities for the World Cup, but there is no system for identifying decent kids, no coach education, no technical director, no developmental programme, one centre of excellence built 15 years ago that’s crumbling”.

The treatment favored by South African soccer – repeatedly changing the coach – has clearly proved ineffective. But logic suggests that if the treatment fails to produce the desired result, then perhaps the premise for that treatment is incorrect. Continuing the same treatment will not likely produce a different result unless a new appointment is uniquely skilled and amongst the world’s very best.

Rather it is more likely that South African soccer will only regain its glory of 1996 if an entirely new approach is adopted.

The current international standing of South African athletics.

Unlike the other team sports that we have reviewed, the individual nature of athletics makes it possible to compare not only the performance of our best athletes in comparison to the world’s best but also to determine our relative depth in the different disciplines. Thus the measure of our competitiveness can be established by comparing the best performances of our athletes in different events as a percentage of the annual world’s best performance in those same events. Similarly, the depth of our athletic performances can be determined by expressing the tenth best performance by a South African also as a percentage of the annual world’s best performance in those same events.

This analysis technique shows that South African male athletes are internationally competitive in the marathon and in the 800m with our best performers regularly lying between 96 and 99% of the world’s best annual performances and our tenth best performances lying between 90 and 94% of the world’s best annual performances. However the performances of our male athletes in the 1500m, 3000m steeplechase, the 5000m and 10 000m is not internationally competitive and have generally been in decline since 1996.

Similarly the best performance of our women athletes occur in the high jump and the 400m hurdles with our best performers generally lying between 94 and 98% of the world’s best annual performances. Similarly the tenth best performers in these events usually lie between 84-86% of the world’s best annual performances.

But there are two areas of special concern. The first are the throwing events in which although some top male South African performers are world class, there is a lack of depth. Thus the tenth best male South African discus, javelin and hammer throwers usually achieve only between about 55-70% of the world’s best annual performance. Similarly the best performances by South African women in the hammer and shot put are only between 70-80% of the world’s best performances.

Second, women distance running is in a state of sharp and steady decline. Thus whereas the best female performances in the 5000 and 10000m lay between 92 and 99% of the world best performances in 1994, this has slipped to between 82 and 84% by 2004. In addition, all 50 best 10 000m times have been run by only 3 South African female runners – Zola Budd, Elana Meyer and Colleen de Reuck. The next best performance by another South African runner is 71st.

Only in the 800 and 1500m have the performances of South African women runners remained fairly consistent over the past 10 years.

It would seem that if it is to remain internationally competitive, South African athletics is in need of some radical surgery.

The current international standing of South African cricket.

Measures of international standing in cricket are provided by the international rankings in One-Day and Five-Day cricket published by the International Cricket Council (ICC) since 2001 and the historic win/loss ratios in both those competitions.

Only one country, Australia, has ever ranked number one on the ICC ratings and then in both One-Day and Five-Day cricket. South Africa began in second place on both those rankings and held those positions from 2001 to 2004, where after it fell to 8th on the One-Day rankings following series losses to New Zealand and Sri Lanka in 2004. Since then there has been a rapid recovery to regain second position at the start of 2006.

In Five-Day cricket, South Africa held second position from 2001 to 2004 before falling from 2nd to 6th position in 2004 with a partial recovery to 4th in 2005 before falling back to 6th position at the start of 2006 and to 7th after the recent series whitewash at the hands of the Australians.

But a review of South African cricketing performances since 1994 shows a progressive decline in competitiveness over the past decade when compared specifically to Australia. Thus the team coached by Bob Woolmer and captained by the late Hansie Cronje reached its peak as a One-Day team in 1996 with a win:loss record of 5:1 winning 25 of 30 matches. In contrast Australia’s One-Day win:loss ratio in 1996 was only 1:1. Between 1995 and 1999, South Africa won 75% of their matches compared to 57% by Australia. In contrast since then the fortunes of the two countries have exactly reversed with Australia winning 75% of their games and South Africa only 59%.

This reversal is even more apparent in Five-Day cricket. Between 1995 and 1999 South Africa shaded Australian performances in Five-Day cricket with a win:loss ratio of 2.88:1, compared to the Australian ratio of 2.13:1. But since 2000 the Australian Five-Day win:loss ratio has improved to an astonishing 5.4:1 whereas that of South Africa has slipped to 1.78:1.

The response of South African cricket to this downturn in its fortunes since the departure of Bob Woolmer, has mirrored that of the South African soccer – frequent replacement of the coach. As a result, South African cricket has employed 4 different coaches since 2000. But as has been the case with South African soccer, this response has apparently done little to prevent a steady decline in the international competitiveness of South African cricket since 2000.

Perhaps the sole consolation of these data is that they show that as little as 10 years ago South Africa was, albeit temporarily, on a par with Australian cricket. One must presume that the recreation of the success factors present in 1996 could again produce the same result.

The current international standing of South African hockey.

International ranking were introduced to hockey in 2003. In the three years since the introduction of those lists, the male South African hockey team has been ranked 13th, 12th and 10th whereas our women hockey team has been ranked 13th, 11th and 11th. Performances in World Cup and Olympic Games competitions have generally mirrored these rankings.

In African competitions including the Africa Cup of Nations and the All African Games, both teams have won all competitions since 1993 except when the women did not compete (1993 Africa Cup of Nations) or when the men finished 2nd (2003 All African Games).

These performances are remarkable given the low level of financial and other support that hockey currently receives compared especially to the backing given to other teams such as the Australians. Many believe that blessed with excellent, innovative and forward-thinking national coaches, South African hockey could become an international force were it to receive even a modicum of financial and other support.

The current international standing of South African rugby.

Rankings were introduced into international rugby in 2003 at which time South African rugby was ranked 6th in the world; by the start of 2005 this had improved to 3rd and by 2006 to 2nd. In addition, at the time of writing, South Africa is currently world champion in both the under-19 and under-21 divisions. By comparison the performance of at least 3 South African teams in the Super 14 competition is a cause for concern and suggests a paradox in search of an answer.

Nevertheless especially the performance of the Springboks since the appointment of Jake White confirms the crucial importance of the correct coach in maximizing inherent skill and ability.


An analysis of five important South African sports shows that performance in 3 has declined with varying degrees of rapidity in the past 10 years. Performance of South African hockey has gone sideways whereas only Springbok rugby has shown some evidence for a generally upward trend. But the performance of South African rugby teams in the Super 14 competition indicates that even this trend may be a precarious aberration dependant on special current circumstances uniquely favoring the Springbok rugby team.

In the next columns we analyze how Australia became the world’s leading sporting nation (based on population size) and what needs to be done on a national scale if the progressive slide of South African sport towards mediocrity is to be reversed.

Prof. Timothy Noakes

Tim Noakes is Professor in the Discovery Health Chair of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town and co-founder with Morne du Plessis of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. He is one of few South African scientists rated A1 by the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa