With less than a week to go until The Unlimited Dusi 2013 gets under way, development paddlers were the big winners when the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Sport and Recreation confirmed a four-year deal as the official sponsors of development canoeing at Natal Canoe Club (NCC), the hosts of the famous three-day race.
"The deal with the KZN Department of Sport and Recreation means that we, NCC, as the organisers of the Dusi, can move forward knowing that a vital element of the race is fully taken care of," said NCC general manager Brett Austen-Smith.
"The development paddlers are such an important element for the Dusi, not only from a social responsibility perspective, but also from a pure race angle. We have so many development paddlers who are racing very competitively, and it is important that they race on equal terms with other competitors."
Passionate about opening doors
KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Arts, Culture, Sport and Recreation Ntombikayise Sibhidla-Saphetha said the province was passionate about opening doors to the race for paddlers from disadvantaged background. "For many years, canoeing has been regarded as an elite sport, with the majority of the people of this country lacking passion and knowledge of its rules, simply because it was associated with a particular race," said Sibhidla-Saphetha.
"With the type of investment we are making into the sport, we want to encourage everyone, particularly from the previously disadvantaged background to be part of this exciting sport.
"Credit must go the Natal Canoe Club for ensuring that canoeing is accessible to all. We have seen paddlers such as Thulani 'Michael' Mbanjwa and Sbonelo 'Eric' Zondi joining the ranks of top paddlers in The Unlimited Dusi Canoe Marathon," Sibhidla-Saphetha said.
"Apart from promoting social cohesion, this sport is proving to be an important instrument to effect behavioral change to young people as it encourages a healthy lifestyle."
The sponsorship will ensure that all KZN-based development paddlers are fully supported for The Unlimited Dusi. They will be provided with three meals a day, as well as the infrastructure for their meals, including tents, tables and chairs. The Department will also pay the entry fees of the paddlers.
In addition, the Department of Sport will sponsor of the NCC Development Team of 10 paddlers and will supply them with Dusi-style boats, paddles, clothing, and camping equipment.
"We're expecting between 70 and 80 development paddlers. Most of them are seniors, so you times that by R825 and it adds up to a lot of money, and that excludes the cost of hosting the paddlers," said Austen-Smith.
'A substantial contribution'
"It's a substantial contribution that the department has made in ensuring that Dusi is run in a professional manner and that there is no compromise as far as the development paddlers are concerned."
The Department of Sport sponsorship also includes the formation of an NCC Academy. "The Development Team will be the core that will help us run the academy," said Austen-Smith.
"The thought process behind the academy is that we need to broaden the horizons of development canoeing. We need to reach out further than just a core bunch of 15 paddlers at NCC. The academy is going to be an initiative where we go to different schools and locations, or wherever. We invite Joe Public and we introduce them to the boat and the sport of canoeing."
Austen-Smith said the opportunity would be used to teach the participants life skills too. To ensure the success of the Academy, he said NCC is presently considering a number of candidates to run it.
"A four-year programme has been put together for the Academy, so there is continuity and a long-term plan as opposed to a short-term immediate type of gain."
MEC Sibhidla-Saphetha's contribution to canoeing won't end with her department's sponsorship of the sport. She will be exhibiting her paddling skills in the lead-up to the Dusi when she takes part in the Midmar Dash with Olympic bronze medal winner Bridgitte Hartley.
At training on Thursday morning at the Natal Canoe Club in Camps Drift, Pietermaritzburg, the MEC was in confident mood ahead of her race at the Midmar Mile. "I think I'm doing well so far. [NCC Development Manager Thuthu Manyathi] is a good trainer. In fact, all the guys here are good trainers. I'll be in the top 10."
Manyathi, too, was confident the MEC would perform well. "From day one, I've seen a lot of improvement," he said. "The boat's been moving fast. Definitely top 10, no doubt!"
The Dash is a one-mile sprint, which will take place at the aQuellé Midmar Mile in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the world's largest open water swimming event and its long connection to the Dusi.