For the love of sport
by Mesh Moeti Interview
By her own admission, Basadi Akoonyatse was never a star athlete in her youth. She confesses to hopping around different codes (“I played netball at primary school. At secondary school, I played a little bit of softball, a little bit of volleyball, and even chess”).
I ask if she was a star spectator then.
“I guess so,” she says in a measured way, as if quietly determining if this is a trick question of sorts. “I watched a lot of sport because I loved sport quite a lot.”
To illustrate this point, she tells an experience from back in 1994 when she was a fresh undergraduate student in Ireland.
“One of the first things I did was to attend the Chris Eubank and Steve Collins fight, while other students were going to the movies and checking out the club scene in Dublin. That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she states.
Akoonyatse has a CV so rich she can walk into a top sports administration job. A physiotherapist by profession, with a masters in sports physiotherapy, she was certified a CAF sports medicine instructor five years back, and has worked with different national teams – ranging from football to athletics. She has been the physiotherapist of Botswana teams at various events such as African Youth Games, Youth Olympic Games, and the Commonwealth games. Hers is the face of the many heroes behind the country’s sporting legends – the volunteers who contribute their expertise and time from behind the scenes and away from the limelight. In recognition of her service to sport, she was a recipient of the 2010 Botswana National Sports Council (BNSC) Chairperson’s Award.
While aware of the argument that the contribution of many volunteers to Botswana sport goes unnoticed, she believes that the observation should be accompanied by careful analysis, and should not be used in general terms.
“Acknowledgement does come,” she says, “but in different packages and sizes. Recognition may not necessarily come in the form of an award, but in other forms such, as capacity-building.”
Where she thinks the sports establishment needs to do more is in appreciating the role of teachers in nurturing future athletes.
“How much are we empowering teachers to train children?” she asks. “Do we empower them enough to know the capability of children’s bodies at different ages? Teachers operate at grassroots level, and I think we can do more to support them so that they excel in what they do for our sport. At times, I feel we undermine the role of teachers. We really can do more to empower them.”
One of the many hats that she wears is as a member of the National Anti-Doping Committee. She points out that the use of drugs is right in our own backyard, and it is becoming a problem in local sport.
Isn’t she being unnecessarily alarmist?
“Not at all,” she says. “Once you have had a single positive test it means there is a problem.”
She states that the National Anti-Doping Committee often receives allegations that some individuals and clubs do drugs. Akoonyatse points out that there are two sides to the problem. On the one side, there is the greed that drives individuals to want to win at all costs. In this cluster, you get people who knowingly take drugs. On the other side, there are athletes who land into trouble out of ignorance. She fears that a lot of Botswana athletes might fall into this trap due to the local environment, which does not seem to pay particular attention to the medical needs of sportspersons.
For instance, even top teams do not have qualified medical personnel in their technical staff.
“Athletes can easily take supplements not knowing that they contain banned substances. Many don’t know what is allowed and what is not. They can just walk into a pharmacy and walk out with all sorts of supplements,” she says.
Akoonyatse points out that to date, the only sports codes that have invited the National Anti-Doping Committee to talk to their athletes and administrators about the pitfalls of drug use in sport are athletics, swimming, and rugby.
She warns that doping can easily tarnish a country’s sporting image.
“Once there is a single positive test, international federations will scrutinize you and keep an eye on you,” she says.
She observes that internationally, athletics seems to be more aggressive than other sports in addressing the use of drugs in sport because the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the sport’s controlling body, has been the most proactive. One measure that IAAF has put in place is the mandatory requirement for competitions organizers of all Olympics qualifiers to test athletes who make the top three positions in any event.
Last year, Akoonyatse was appointed chairperson of Women and Sports Botswana (WASBO), having initially served as deputy chairperson since 2008. She explains that the relevance of WASBO should be seen within the wider international context, as the worldwide trend is towards increasing participation and the role of women in sport. She points out that even the FIFA executive committee has ceased being an exclusive old boys’ club, following the appointment of Lydia Nsereka, the president of Burundi Football Association.
She finds it a bit problematic to tell if WASBO is winning in opening doors for female athletes and administrators. This is because there is nothing to measure the progress against. The missing link, she states, is the absence of policies that require sporting codes to “do this, do that, and don’t do this or that with regard to women’s participation”.
“As an advocacy body, this is something we have picked. We need policies. If a code has no tournaments for women, we need a stand. If all the money that a code gets goes to support men’s teams, what does that say [about encouraging women’s participation in sport]? This is an assignment that our committee is working on, and we are engaging with BNSC to develop policies in that direction,” she says.
Akoonyatse states that it was out of realization that females face peculiar problems that a process was started to set up a Female Athletes Committee. The idea is to have the new structure as a forum for female athletes to meet and encourage each other, as well as to share challenges and how to overcome them. With more female role models in sport, such as the world 400metres champion Amantle Montsho, she expects a relaxation of attitudes towards female athletes. But she cautions parents against putting children under pressure to be star athletes.
“We shouldn’t only look at the high achievement of people like Amantle. Let’s first encourage participation. If success and high achievement come, well and good, but the starting point is to encourage participation, and not competition,” she advises.
She is reluctant to spell out indicators that would signal mission accomplished for WASBO. Her point is that there will always be room for improvement.
“If we reach a point where [sports] codes give equal attention to females as males that will be the breakthrough point. Right now, codes are doing it half-heartedly just to say, ‘le rona re nale team ya basadi’. If you look at the support that female teams get, it’s almost non-existent. What other explanation is there for a national team to be stranded without transport, except that it is a women’s team? Do you think that can happen to a men’s team? I don’t think so,” she says.
Akoonyatse talks of the need for women administrators to step out of the shadows and take high profile leadership roles that have always been the domain of men.
“Women do a lot of the work, yet men carry all the executive titles,” she says. “Women also need to come forward and take positions and get recognition. Look at the Botswana Games. The entire organization for most of the time is done by women.”
As if to lead by example, she will stand for elections to the executive committee of Botswana Football Association (BFA) on July 28. Her explanation is that there is need for someone with medical background in the BFA executive.
“Even FIFA executive has medical people,” she says. “Other football associations such as SAFA (South African Football Association) and Swaziland also have medical people. Medical issues are very critical because that is where you deal with issues such as gender verification and age determination. With sport becoming so complex, there is need for someone at decision making level with a background in the medical field.”
She confirms that being a volunteer with so many roles does take a toll – time wise and energy wise. But she is not about to complain because, “nobody has time in sport; it is entirely dependent on volunteers”. She sees her contribution as national service.
“You see a gap and you feel you can do something about it, so you step forward and offer your time and expertise to try and help,” she explains.
Before we part, she lets me in that her 13-year-old daughter (she has two other children aged 18 and seven) recently received a Top Achiever Award for last year’s Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).
“You can see I am a good mother,” she beams.