Teachers play a big role in producing Olympians - Geraldine Pillay-Viret
With just 5 women making the final Olympic athletics team, the debate about the lack of top female performers has once again erupted in athletics circles. Athletics South Africa will be represented by 34 athletes in total at #Tokyo2021, only five of whom are women. As the first South African woman to win a medal in the sprints at a global sporting event, Geraldine Pillay believes it is not the lack talent but the lack of support on the difficult road from future champion to top runner that prevents most SA girls from reaching the pinnacle of the sport. And her own story is no different.
"I grew up in a small little place in the Western Cape, called Macassar. From a very young age I was exposed to negative things and I've seen so many young girls falling pregnant while still at school. I've also seen some of my friends become victims of abuse," says the 8-time SA champion. That she managed to make it out of Macassar to win a silver medal in the 100m and bronze in the 200m at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne is a testament to her drive and determination. She also credits her parents.
"I also saw my parents working very, very hard. Waking up early in the morning and coming back late at night. My father was very strict. He was a very knowledgable and a wise man. I remember my dad used to work shifts and I remember telling myself that I never, ever, ever want to work in a factory because that is what my parents did - they were factory workers," she reveals. "I wanted to be the person that gets invited to come and speak at schools. I would just marvel at all these role models who would come from out of town to my high school or primary school to speak to us and motivate us. And I thought that I want to be that voice, that person that rose above her circumstances. I wanted kids on the street where I lived to say Geraldine stayed in this house and if she can do it so can I,"she said.
And that's precisely what she did. After completing her studies at the Peninsula Technikon, Pillay got a job in information technology which she promptly quit in order to follow her dreams. Inspired by Marion Jones who came to South Africa to run in the Engen Summer Grand Prix Series, Pillay moved to Boston in the US to work as an au-pair while she trained to become a top sprinter. The time abroad served her well because she returned ready to compete at the highest level, taking 4th place in the 100m at the 2003 All-Africa Games before winning the gold medal in the 200m at the African Championships the following year.
"No matter if it is academic, cultural or in sport, but whatever you put your mind to and you work hard you can really do it. It is possible," is the mantra she lives by. So convinced is she of the fact that people can use sport to change their lives, that the 43-year old is frequently invited to schools to motivate youngsters. As the head of athletics at St Benedict’s College in Johannesburg, Pillay (who is now Pillay-Viret) is in charge of grooming the next generation of top runners while she continues to travel around the country sharing her inspirational message of hope.
The woman who represented South Africa at the 2004 Olympics in Athens believes the answer to unearthing more young girls from a similar background to hers, lies in the role that teachers play. "It doesn't matter where you come from. Where you are right now is not your destiny. You can change the whole trajectory of your life by starting now and dreaming bigger. I always had big dreams and I had teachers who played an important role in my life. Their constant 'nagging' kept me motivated and inspired because they told me that one day I could run on TV and be the fastest woman in South Africa. That was a far-fetched dream in 1995, but those were the teachers I had who inspired me to think outside of the Macassar box," she says.
Sharing this message around the country in communities like Macassar is why this woman who retired over 10 years ago remains relevant today. Pillay-Viret was recently named as an ambassador for the SA Olive Industry Association. Still trim and gym-fit, Pillay-Viret uses that role to shine the spotlight on the role that olive oil plays in helping one to maintain a healthy diet and a balanced lifestyle.
Ultimately it's her approach to life is which has led her to success. "I always tell the kids in my talks that if you're born poor its not your fault. But it's your fault if you die poor," she concluded. Perhaps we need more teachers like Pillay-Viret inspiring girls across the country if we are to have 10 girls the next time South Africa sends an athletics team to the Olympic Games?