From Durban to Beijing

Braam Wessels, Senior Manager of Presence Marketing and Sponsorship at Telkom, has been involved with South African swimmers for almost 10 years.

“Telkom has been involved with swimming since South Africa was re-admitted to world sport. Our sponsorship of the Olympic and Paralympic team came at a time when the Olympics as a sports code was still very new to this country. At the time we were looking for a property suitable to our brand.”

Swimming was attractive to Telkom because it was a sport that it could promote as a lifestyle. It does this through its sponsorship of its "Learn to Swim" project, aimed at developing the sport at grass-roots level. This initiative coaches educators nationally who, in turn, impart their swimming and water safety skills to their learners. In this way, Telkom nurtures the long-term interests of the sport competitively as well as promoting swimming as a recreational activity.

“The project," says Wessels, “also tries to make a difference to drowning statistics by teaching children to swim. Swimming is something everyone can do whether they are old or young. It is such a stretchable sports code; it’s more than just a sport.”

SA Swimmers are winners
Another motivation for Telkom’s sponsorship was the knowledge that the country’s swimmers were winners. “We knew swimming was a code where we could win medals. As with any sponsorship, ours is related to results. So we can truly say that we don’t see our paralympic sponsorship as a social responsibility. We sponsor all our athletes equally.”

Wessels is very clear about this. “It is not a donation, but a serious investment we make. We have to answer to our stakeholders and organisations. We have measures in place to gauge our athletes’ - and therefore our sponsorship’s – success.” Happily, Wessels can easily say the swimmers have gone from strength to strength. “All our Paralympians, not just our swimmers, really carry the flag every year with outstanding results.”

These results have gone a long way to securing an event such as the recent 2006 IPC Swimming World Championships at Kings Park Aquatic Centre. Wessels, who attended the event with his son, says it provided Telkom, the country and the athletes with an opportunity to showcase our potential to the world.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to get involved and position the Telkom brand, the country and our swimmers together. An event like this also serves to educate people about disability so they appreciate our disabled athletes.”

Swimming is the one sports code in the country where able-bodied and disabled athletes compete together at the same event. “This motivates both parties – the able bodied athletes appreciate the disabled athletes more, and this encourages them,” says Wessels. This integration is also setting the trend for other sports to mix able-bodied and disabled athletes.

From a sponsor’s point of view, Wessels is also very happy with the way the IPC Swimming World Championships went for South Africa. ”The medal count from our swimmers was once again excellent.”

His next goal is Beijing 2008. “The paralympic team did so well at Athens 2004 and we want to build on that and do even better. Our athletes definitely raised the bar.”

Wessels says this will be easier than previous years as the paralympic team members have begun their preparations well in advance, and the necessary resources have all been in place from the start. And this is where Telkom’s sponsorship is such an important part of the whole.

“Our sponsorship ensures that the administration and facilities which the athletes need are in place. It also supports squad members by providing transport, equipment and whatever else they may need to ensure that they participate in qualifiers around the world. The sponsorship is strictly for the team and not an individual sponsorship. This is in line with good corporate governance guidelines as it means the team benefits as a whole and not one individual more than another.”

World class athletes
The Telkom sponsorship is also indicative of just how far disabled sport has come, progressing from very little actual support, to a professional, fully fledged sports body preparing world class athletes. And the results verify this. They would simply not be there if the administration, systems and facilities were not in place for the athletes. “If you want to see how far disabled sport has come, just look at the history of the Paralympics,” says Wessels.

The Rome Olympics in 1960 were the first games where athletes with disabilities competed at the same venue as the able-bodied athletes. At that time, 23 countries with a total of 400 disabled athletes took part. In 1964 in Tokyo, the athletes also shared the same venue.

However, although there was co-operation between the Olympic and Paralympic Organising Committees in 1988 at the Seoul Korea Games, it was only in 1992, 32 years and five Olympic Games later, that disabled and able-bodied athletes got to compete at the same venue again. At the Barcelona Paralympics, 3021 disabled athletes from 82 countries competed at the same Olympic venue. The event became a benchmark of organisational excellence in.

The Sydney Paralympics in 2000 drew 3 843 disabled athletes from 122 countries and saw record ticket sales. The Paralympics had arrived. And for the South African Paralympic squad, it heralded a new era in which they became the stars. Names such as Natalie du Toit and Tadhg Slattery became almost household names after Sydney. The squad raked in plenty of gold, silver and bronze. Athens in 2004 solidified the Paralympic squad’s reputation as winners.

Capabilities, not disabilities
“The Paralympics was very new; it was almost an add-on in the beginning, when we started with our sponsorship,” says Wessels. “But I remember the Atlanta Games, which were before Sydney 2004, and that was when it started to come together for me. Sport is now based on your capabilities, not your disabilities, and the integration of sports bodies recognises this.”

Disabled athletes now benefit from the same high performance sports training as able bodied athletes, at venues such as the University of Pretoria’s High Performance facility. Within this environment, their talents can be fostered and nurtured to world class standards. “Previously, they did not have access to these facilties,” explains Wessels. Another critical element of world class sport is sports science. “Athletes can no longer be managed as they were 10 years ago. In the global arena of competitive sport, science is an essential ingredient.”

In 2004 disabled sport became an integral part of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASOC). This huge step was taken when SASCOC, the controlling body for all high performance sport in South Africa, was formed as a Section 21 Company by all the country’s sports bodies at a general meeting.

“The objective of this body is to promote and develop high performance sport in the country, and to act as the controlling body for the preparation and delivery of Team South Africa at all multi-sport international games, including but not limited to the Olympics, Paralympics, Commonwealth Games, World Games and All Africa Games,” says Wessels.

On a personal level the sponsorship has been very meaningful to Wessels, who was also lucky enough to attend the Athens 2004 Paralympics. “I lived close to the South African team and management. It had a very big impact on my life. I realised that every morning, just to get ready, these athletes faced challenges that able-bodied athletes and able-bodied people, do not have to face. I instantly appreciated life more.

“Today, a pet hate of mine is able-bodied people who park in disabled parking bays. “People don’t realise these bays are wider than the average bay to allow for space for the wheelchair. It angers me when I see people just park there.”

Another issue he is passionate about is transport. “Travelling on a plane and bus with the athletes opens your eyes. There are space and equipment issues. It is mind-boggling, but not impossible. In fact, it is quite easy to overcome these issues, but a lack of knowledge in the public arena means these issues are not addressed sufficiently in my mind.”

Wessels is confident that South Africa will host other international events similar to the IPC Swimming World Championships. However, he believes that disabled transport and other logistical issues will have to be addressed now before it’s too late.

Article Photos