By GARY LEMKE in Tokyo
Leon Fleiser knows more than most how one’s life can change in a second. Or even less. In his case it was a bullet in the back 30 years ago, shortly before his 21st birthday. “25th May 1991,” he says, the date indelibly etched on his mind. He had been in a nightclub in Hillbrow. Like any ‘normal’ 20-year-old, just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I was paralysed instantly,” he says. “But, I never gave up on life and I’ve always looked at the positives and the good side in people. I have three wonderful children and an amazing wife and a job that I love.”
Fleiser’s job is with the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, where his current role is acting general manager: high performance. Over the past couple of months, though, he has been integrally involved with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and now 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. At the former, he was deputy chef de mission and at the latter he is the chef de mission. “I suppose you could say that I’ve come full circle in the last 30 years. From a sportsman to leading a team out at the Paralympic Games.”
How did that fateful night in Hillbrow take him down a different path? “It led me to a better life,” he freely admits. “Sport has always been something that I have loved. So, being a team sportsman it led me to wheelchair basketball. I played at club, provincial and national levels for a number of years. I was lucky enough to captain the team to the Sydney Paralympics in 2000, and I also went to the world championships and African championships.
“Then I got involved in sports administration and that just changed everything.”
Fleiser believes that sport for those with disabilities is now reaching the place where South Africans can truly unite behind their teams. “It was integrated as far back as the 1970s because the common denominator was everyone with a disability. But you are now seeing growth across the racial spectrum and accessibility to everyone.
“Obviously, some sports are more expensive than others, but the demographics point to a place where South Africa is. Here I think part of the reason is that the federations have started to take sport for disabilities under their wings a lot more. That has opened up opportunities. For example, instead of one competition a year there are multiple competitions a year. There are grands prix which are based all over the world, so that increases participation. Our participation numbers are growing.
“SASCOC has been putting a lot of work into refocusing on para-athletes. I’m particularly excited about Paris 2024, which is only three years away and three years is very short in a sporting cycle. At the [track and field] Worlds two years ago the para-athletes were the stars of the show and a couple of juniors from there are in this team and a couple are pushing for medals.”
Ah, medals, the word that seems to be thrown around like confetti when it comes to the Olympics and Paralympics. So, while we’re here, what is his view on medals?
“Look, we definitely lost something in swimming. Natalie du Toit is impossible to replace. She won 15 Paralympic medals – 13 of them gold – from 2004 to 2012. We have seven different sports here in Tokyo, and ideally we’d have 10, but many athletes didn’t qualify due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the difficulties that the lockdowns brought. But there was nothing we could do about that.
“I do think though that we will see a phenomenal 2024 and 2028 Paralympics in terms of medals. I have a driving passion to see para athletes improve and get on to that world stage.”
Fleiser is one of those rare nuggets that started out as an international sportsman and who has now been polished into an international administrator, who has earned the respect of his peers around the world.
“I never formally trained as a sports administrator, there was a natural progression to it. I started out at Mandeville sports club where I became president. I was involved in basketball and got offered the chance to help out the Paralympic committee, which at that stage  was under the guise of Disability Sport SA. In 2005, they merged with SASCOC and became one governing body. I have always thought that by first being an athlete helps one become a better sports administrator. I can categorically say that in everything that I do, I think of the athlete first.
“Patience [Shikwambana] was really good at that as chef de mission at the recent Olympic Games. She made sure the athletes were comfortable. We as officials are second to them. This has been my philosophy and my actions have backed that up. I have always put my athletes first and I feel they appreciate what I do for them. I go out of my way to ensure that all they have to worry about is what happens on the field of play.”
Fleiser has also been exposed to the keyboard warriors who feel that there is a disproportionate number of management and officials who travel on the teams to major events like the Paralympics. “Perhaps if I didn’t know what I do [know] now, I might have once agreed with those people. But, truly, those who hold that view obviously don’t understand what has to go into the background to ensure the athlete gets on to the field. There is a lot of logistics to make things happen. You don’t just rock up, get your number and go run. It’s a lot different to that.
“Speak to the athletes. They will tell you the work that the Team SA officials put in. Here, for instance, we’ve got a very advanced medical team to cater for the athletes and equally we have to have highly qualified and skilled administrators to do the groundwork for the athletes.”
And they do it with stretched resources. “Correct. For instance, at the Tokyo Olympics, Australia had 20 people doing what Danisha [Mendes] and myself did during the Games. Now, Australia have probably got a similar number doing what I do. To say we are streamlined is putting it mildly!”
The door has opened twice so far during our interview and the phone has buzzed a couple of times. Fleiser has an open-door policy and he is available around the clock. Slight exaggeration of the facts, you might say?
“No exaggeration at all,” Fleiser confirms. “My door is open 24 hours door. I get calls at 1, 2am. I take those calls. Athletes have been arriving in Tokyo [for both Games] at 8 in the evening. It’s 12 midnight when they’ve cleared the airport and by the time they get to the village it’s 2am. We are there to welcome them, show them their rooms and show them the dining hall. They’re always hungry! We go to bed around 7 in the morning and I’ve got to be back in the office at 8am. There’s no working hours when the Games are in town.
“The job description also goes out the window – you have to do everything. You have to be a travel agent, paymaster, tailor, confidant, supporter, leader, admin … and just before this interview I was trying to fix a phone that an athlete dropped! But while every Games has its unique dynamics, Tokyo has been much harder. The Covid stuff is not in our control, and it’s the first time we’ve gone somewhere that we haven’t been in control of the situation. That’s the only thing that bugs me.”
Fleiser is a selfless individual who has sacrificed a lot to get to where he is. He is loud and never short of a comment or a laugh, even if it’s at the expense of himself. It wouldn’t be far off the mark to call him a force of nature. But, the confidence escapes him like a popped balloon when we talk about the sacrifices and his family.
He takes a deep breath. “The toll on my family has been … massive. My boys are a bit older now but I’ve missed a lot of their birthdays. My daughter is now eight and I’ve been home for a couple of her birthdays – and that’s only because Covid hit, otherwise I would have missed them, too.
“It takes a huge toll on my wife who is just brilliant and has to carry the can when I’m away and I travel a lot so …” Another deep breath.
“I don’t go to bed without speaking to them if I can. There are some nights when I just pass out asleep before I can speak to them and I get reminded of that in the morning.” And he laughs. The composed Fleiser is back.
“Any sports person will say that’s the biggest sacrifice … the family time that you have to give away to be able to do your job to service the athletes.”
The obvious question is why would one make all those sacrifices for a job.
Fleiser makes eye contact. “I love the athletes. They’re my second family. That’s what I’m here for. I work hard for the four years between the Games purely for these three weeks so that the athletes can thrive and showcase their talent to the world.”
And he wouldn’t have it any other way. It can be said with absolute certainty that neither would Team SA’s Paralympians.