By GARY LEMKE in Tokyo
Meet Patience Shikwambana, Team SA’s chef de mission at two of the last three Olympic Games’. What’s a chef de mission, you might ask? A glance at Google and the role is accurately summed up: “One of the primary responsibilities of a chef de mission is to be the spokesperson for the entire team in the lead up to and during the Games. They are also a mentor, supporter, and cheerleader who aims to motivate and inspire the team while protecting the performances of the athletes.”
This is certainly true of Shikwambana, who leads by example. And there are hundreds of examples from which to choose. When I arrived in a group of about 25 athletes and management at the Olympic village in Tokyo around 3am, Shikwambana was there to personally help with handing out apartment keys and checking that her athletes had arrived safely.
When Bianca Buitendag and Tatjana Schoenmaker arrived back at Team SA headquarters after winning their medals, Shikwambana was at the entrance to welcome them, before breaking into song. She was also active behind the scenes, examples being when there was mounting disquiet that members of Team SA’s Sevens rugby men and football had to be placed into various measures of isolation and even quarantine.
On the Team SA code (sport) managers’ Whatsapp group there were constant supportive messages from Shikwambana. All caring, inspirational, from the heart.
Shikwambana has earned the role of “the caring mother of Team SA” and she’s popular, both with athletes and with team management and support staff. She’s got a wealth of experience and a calm leadership quality about her. Athletes and management often refer to her as “extremely fair” and that’s a high compliment on occasions when emotions can, and do, run high.
“My experience in the other Games’ came in handy here in Tokyo,” she said as she started getting ready for the long haul home, although she is the last to leave the Olympic village only later in the week. The captain of the good ship Team SA.
“These were very different Games. The whole Covid-19 pandemic and adherence to the Playbook, and implement and follow the Playbook and government regulations. The big worry was the well being of our athletes and ensuring they’d participate in these Games. I’m happy that no athlete had to be sent home due to contracting Covid.
“Yes, I know we had challenges with football and rugby, but for me the fact that they managed to participate was a victory. The isolation and quarantines might have hindered their performance, but for me bigger than that was that they participated.
“On a personal level I’ll admit that these Games were stressful. You’re constantly thinking of the Covid risk and what if an athlete tests positive here in the village and it’s close to his or her competition. Then you’d have to send those athletes home – or they’d have to go into isolation. So I am grateful that the teamwork, networking and friendship with many people helped.
When the IOC president addressed the Chef de Missions’ meeting I explained to him that what had happened to our rugby boys shouldn’t impact their aspirations of becoming Olympians or medallists. I said that we should rather focus on putting athletes first, their well-being and our own sport protocols while adhering to what the various governments said.
“The fact that we fought hard as a team to get our football and rugby boys back into the competition so that they could complete all their matches was satisfying, because that was the biggest single challenge Team SA faced at these Games.”
A lot has been made of Team SA’s medal’s return, the three – one gold and two silvers – being the lowest since Beijing 2008. As leader of the Team SA delegation, what was Shikwambana’s view?
“They arrived from seven time zones away and ordinarily we would have wanted 10 to 14 days of recovery going into the Games but because of the Covid protocols that was not possible. Under my leadership I could only try to help make them feel at ease and I believe as a collective, we achieved that. Project Management, which includes logistics, is our responsibility. There was not a single complaint laid by an athlete.
“Our athletes overcame many challenges just to be at Tokyo 2020. There had been a lot of negative stuff that the Games might not even go ahead. But all of our athletes who came and participated did what they could do under circumstances. They hadn’t had the opportunity to go to training camps, or competitions. I always say to people if it wasn’t for the athletes we wouldn’t be here as Team Management.
“I take my leadership role extremely seriously and it’s a privilege to be chef de mission. I have seen that my ‘singing and dancing’ went viral on social media but songs brings South Africa together, they unite us. Shosholoza is an example. Everyone knows the words, so when all of us are singing it brings us together. You know with what was happening back at home (the social unrest) … yes we were worried, but we were here and our singing and dancing helped bring joy and an appreciation of each other.
“Other things that cropped up brought back the wise words of my own late mom. She used to say, ‘when you encounter challenges, see them like the strong winds that come and later it’s gone, winds will come but it shall pass’. so basically that’s my attitude because truly in every difficulty lies an opportunity. Stay calm, stay positive and show our athletes that we can defeat anything.” One of the fundamental responsibilities of the leader is also to help the Team to succeed in their work because leadership is not a one women’s show.
As for her work ethic, she says, “I do my best in the task I have been given and I have compassion. I might not know you, but if I put myself in your shoes, how would I act and how do I feel? Through engaging with elite athletes, one thing I keep saying to those who did well is you’ve now also become a leader. Becoming a champion athlete is a leadership position. Use your position to make a difference in society. Inspire, stay humble and be respectful to others.”
For the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics Team SA will have a different chef de mission, but the role will be the same. As it will be at the 2022 Commonwealth Games and Paris 2024 Olympics. But there’s a blueprint and if they follow the examples set by Patience Shikwambana, Team SA will always be in good hands.