Many athletes with Down’s syndrome, but especially outstanding and goal-oriented swimmers, have been prevented from realizing their full potential in the past few years due to a lack of support and empowerment from the state.
RNews reported earlier that SASSA-II, the multi-sport federation for the intellectually disabled in South Africa, has for years failed to pay international affiliation fees to the Down Syndrome International Swimming Organization (DSISO); it prevents swimmers with Down’s syndrome from registering new world records and participating in international events.
However, Minke Janse van Rensburg, a swimming champion with Down’s syndrome who was named disabled sportswoman of the year at the Department of Sport, Art and Culture’s SA Sports Awards in March this year – and other swimming superstars such as Melisa and Sean O’Neill – can finally now breaking international records again. This after several of these athletes’ parents put their heads together to set up an organization that will help them seize the opportunities that come their way.
No government support
Hennie Janse van Rensburg, Minke’s father, says it is their only hope to try to support Down’s syndrome athletes, especially swimmers. He says no other organization – even the organizations responsible for it – is making an effort to help.
“For many years, SASSA-II allowed Down’s syndrome swimmers to participate internationally – and South Africa really performed exceptionally well – but a few years ago a new president, Ronnie Mohlabi, was elected for the federation. This made the picture look much different for these swimmers.
Janse van Rensburg says that according to Mohlabi, SASSA-II has limited funds and they must be used “for sports that are more representative of the population”. Apparently swimming does not form part of this.
Mohlabi also apparently decided that self-paid tours for intellectually disabled athletes are not permissible because they are unfair to those who cannot afford them.
“So there were no opportunities for Minke and other Down’s syndrome swimmers to participate internationally. It’s as if SASSA-II just doesn’t know how to support performing athletes,” says Janse van Rensburg.
“SASSA-II’s membership with DSISO also lapsed due to arrears, after which we established the Down’s Syndrome Sports Organization (DSSO) so that these athletes – who live for sport – are no longer held back due to organizations that do not want to take their side, ” says Janse van Rensburg.
Inequality remains a major problem
Ann van Bosch, director of DSSO, as well as a mother and mother-in-law of the two married Down’s syndrome swimming champions, Melisa and Sean O’Neill, says that especially swimmers with Down’s syndrome do not receive the necessary support, assistance and even recognition for their incredible achievements are not received.
“Down’s syndrome athletes are treated incredibly unequally and receive no support of any kind from the state; not a single department assists these athletes.
“Although we have excellent participants, we were unable to go to Portugal for the Down Syndrome World Swimming Championships last year.
“We could have brought home many medals – many more than South Africa’s Olympic team.”
According to Van Bosch, a team of 40 Down’s syndrome athletes in 2016 won more medals at the Trisome Games in Florence, Italy, than all the medals that South Africa’s Olympic and Paralympic team could collect together over the years.
“They won over fifty medals that year and nobody even knows about it.
“If Chad le Clos wins a gold medal, he also receives three thousand rands; but if one of our Down’s syndrome swimmers gets a gold medal and even breaks a world record, they don’t even get a ‘thank you’,” says Van Bosch.
“The inequality is a battle that has been fought for decades. This is a big problem for us.”
Although DSSO was already founded in 2018, the organization only recently became a national sports organization (NSO), explains Van Bosch.
Van Bosch says the main goal of the organization is to reduce the inequality – which Down’s syndrome athletes currently experience -. However, it is also to help develop up-and-coming athletes and try to financially assist performing athletes in various sports.
“DSSO has also recently been affiliated with DSISO and the directors have agreed with the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascok) that Swimming South Africa may authorize foreign participation for Down Syndrome swimmers.
“This is a big milestone for us. We hope that we can now make a difference in the lives of all Down’s syndrome athletes, but especially the swimmers who are treated so unfairly.
“All the money the organization raises will go to athletes who qualify, whether they are elite athletes or developing athletes. If someone qualifies, we’ll see how we can contribute.
“Where we can offer help and support, we will.”