Wednesday, January 26, 2022

For the love of sport

So what’s the attraction of leading a grassroots sports organisation that seems light years from the limelight?

“Sport goes with passion,” Steve Bothasitse responds. “If one is passionate about sport they wouldn’t mind serving in an organisation such as ours. It is also about the satisfaction that comes with unearthing and nurturing talent.”

President of the Botswana Integrated Sports Association (BISA) for the past four years, Bothasitse is young, unassuming, yet self-assured. Somehow you get a sense that the BISA show is a prelude to a much grander stage.

BISA is an affiliate of the Botswana National Sports Council (BNSC), and its mandate is to oversee sports in junior and senior secondary schools. That puts it at the crucible of the nation’s sport development efforts. It is no wonder, then, that chances are every big name you know in Botswana sports has passed through BISA structures, perhaps the most famous being former 400m world champion Amantle Montsho.

It is within this context that Bothasitse makes the confident declaration that there cannot be successful elite sport without organisations such as BISA which work at the lowest level of sport development, where the burden is carried by the many volunteers whose names and faces we might never know.

“If we have an ambition to be a sporting nation, it only makes sense for government to invest money in school sport because it is the basis for national sport,” he says. “If we do not get the foundation right, there is no way we can have elite sport.”

From where he sits, Bothasitse feels the ship is going in the right direction. He points to the recognition his organisation gets from both BNSC and the ministry of youth, sport and culture. There is even an annual grant that allows BISA to run its activities.

“I believe this shows that government is fully supportive of school sport, though money is never enough,” he says.

It is a far cry from the days when volunteers were only rewarded with a meal during competitions.
Through the efforts of various stakeholders, including the teachers’ unions, there is overtime payment for teachers who coach sports teams. Bothasitse is convinced that government appreciates the efforts of volunteers, especially teachers.

Every sports volunteer will tell you that it is a calling that come at huge personal cost that sometimes cannot be adequately compensated by monetary reward. Many rarely ever get to spend time with their families, attending to midweek practice sessions and travelling with the teams on weekends.

This is the reality that Bothasitse knows very well, having started out as a tennis coach when he began his teaching career at Lotsane Senior Secondary School.

“It does take a lot of your time,” he concedes. “But if you are determined and you love sport, you’d do anything for sport.”

The BISA constitution states that the organisation’s members are the schools, and it depends on teachers to deliver on its mandate. Since the dawn of unionisation in the public service, organisations such as BISA have learnt to tread very carefully. With many teachers belonging to unions, that is where they get the cue. If, for instance, the unions tell their members to back off from doing sport, as it previously happened, it means the BISA calendar stalls. Bothasitse looks back at the 2011 public service strike and its immediate aftermath as a difficult period for BISA. Just two years into the BISA presidency at the time of the strike, he watched helplessly as the wheels came off the vehicle he was supposed to be driving.

“We just had to wait for the situation to be resolved because as BISA we have no control over such issues; we can’t even negotiate on behalf of teachers who are engaged in sports,” he points out.

The BISA calendar runs throughout the year, with each school term dedicated to a set of sporting activities according to this formula: athletics (first term), ball sports (second term), and cross country (third term).

“The third term is always a challenge,” he says. “It’s the term when exams are running, and this is the time when we fight for children with parents.”

Even as it frustrates him, Bothasitse says it is understandable that parents should be anxious about their children’s studies. However, he argues that calling children to camp in preparation for sporting events does not compromise their studies. He explains that in line with the rules of all organisations that BISA is affiliated to such as BNSC, Botswana National Olympic Committee, and International School Sport Federation, when children are in camp sufficient measures are put in place to take care of their academic work.

Bothasitse says the needs of learners are taken into consideration when coaches are selected. As an average teacher is qualified to teach two subjects, Bothasitse maintains that there is usually a good mix of teachers in camp to attend to all learners. The teachers are paid for their services through a grant from BNSC.

To demonstrate how well the arrangement works, he gives the example of last year when a team was in camp in preparation for the Confederation of School Sport Associations of Southern Africa (COSSASA) Athletics Championships.

“We dedicated between two and three hours in the morning and evening to academic work,” he says.
“This year we sent an athletics team to Czech Republic. It was in camp for a week. Since it was towards end of the term, the schools sent mock exam papers to BISA, and we administered the exam.
We always encourage schools to inform us how much ground the kids in camp have covered, so that we are able to assist them when they are with us.”

He expresses hope that the introduction of centres of sports excellence throughout the country will help address the issue, and at the same time drive Botswana’s sporting ambitions closer to realisation.

I ask him about the demand by some parents that their children should be paid whenever they called for international events.

“At BISA we run school sport, and therefore we don’t pay athletes,” he answers. “Even the BNSC Act says youth teams are not paid. This position is not peculiar to Botswana. It’s an international practice that youth are not paid. They are rather given scholarships to further their studies and pursue sports at centres of excellence. We try to avoid an element of children being awash with money before they are ready to handle it. At their age, the priority is to develop them into better athletes before they break into the professional ranks.”

He cautions against underestimating the importance of school sport in terms of health benefits and character building. He makes reference to Britain which recorded a sharp rise in child obesity after the country cancelled school sport.

If he were to make two wishes, they would be (one) for government to build sports facilities that are truly integrated, unlike the Masunga Stadium which is not a good place to host athletics events because artificial turf is not ideal for throws such as javelin and discus; and (two) to have a single body run school sport, away from the current scenario where there is a dedicated organisation for primary, secondary and tertiary institutions respectively.

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