Veteran sports commentator, Manfred Seidler, fell in love with the Olympics in 1984 when he watched the great Carl Lewis win the popular 100m men’s title.
In the mid-nineties, Seidler was inspired to become a commentator after becoming friends with a BBC commentator, who visited South Africa to commentate.
One of his first athlete interviews was with a then up-and-coming athlete, Rene Kalmer, who at 17, became SA Junior and Senior 1500m Champion, SA Junior and Senior Cross-Country Champion, SA Junior and Senior 10km Champion and won the unofficial SA 5km championships.
Seidler covered the 2008 and 2016 Olympic Games virtually and was fortunate to be in London for the 2012 edition.
In this wide-ranging interview with Koketso Kgogome, this passionate sports media professional, highlights leading women in sport performances, talks up the Olympic Games and shares his views on the role of media in sport.
Manfred, thank you for taking the time to speak to us. Are you excited for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics even though they’re expected to be different this year?
The Olympics have been a roller coaster ride of epic proportions for all involved. Athletes, administrators, coaches, organizers, sponsors and yes, the media, too. Many would say that the media would have a field day as there is so much to report on. But how many times can we speculate and keep coming back to “we just don’t know”? And we don’t. The IOC and the Japanese 2020 LOC have been putting out all the right messages. “We will go ahead.” “The Games will happen…” etc, etc.
But until a vaccine has come along, the Games had been in doubt. And they are still. While the IOC and the LOC are now more confident and almost bullish with the roll out of the vaccine, there are still many questions to be answered. Ultimately though, I doubt the Games will go ahead in the format we have come to expect.
So not knowing what to expect has made it difficult to get excited. Hopes have been dashed too many times. I think only once we have a more concrete idea will the excitement levels start to rise again. In order to generate excitement, we need to know who is competing, who are the stars and those who could upset the apple cart.
Up until now, that storyline has not been portrayed – for obvious reasons. I do believe we will have the Games, just how they will be presented is anyone’s guess at this point.
Spare a thought for the athletes in South Africa. Their preparations have been totally scuppered. They are trying to get into shape for something that may not even happen. Have had little to no competition exposure/opportunity to gage their readiness. The strain on the mental side of the athletes must be enormous.
Which female athletes are you excited to see in the Olympics, and why?
I have a passion for middle distance in athletics and of late there have been a plethora of records and great times and distances tumbling. So, I am really looking forward to the athletics at the Games.
Shelley Ann Fraser Price is looking to come back in the sprints. Shaunae Miller Oibo is making statements in the 400m. (Incidentally, this is the camp that Wayde van Niekerk has moved to.) The women’s 800m has a sour taste right now with the Caster Semenya saga. But the 1500m 5000m, 10 000m and 3000m Steeplechase and the Marathon are offering mouth-watering prospect. The British will pin their hopes on Laura Muir in the 150m. But with the likes of Sifan Hassan (World Champion), Faith Kipyegon (Olympic Champion, 2017 World Champion and 2019 runner up), Gudaf Tsegay (Third at the World Championships in 2019, World Record Holder 5000m and newly crowned indoor world record holder for the 1500m), Muir will battle.
It will be interesting to see if Hassan tries a double again. She doubled at the 2019 World Championships in 1500m and 10 000m, winning gold in both. But will she opt to double in the 5000m/10 000m? or 1500m/10 000m. Or not double? I guess that depends on the schedule.
Gidey is likely to race the 5000m as her main event as she is the World Record Holder, but her recent 1500m Indoor World Record may make her reconsider. Or she may double in 1500m/5000m. Helen Obiri won the world title in 2017 and 2019 and was runner up in Rio at the Olympics in the 5000m. She has a massive track record in this event and will likely try and go one better than in 2016. But throw in a possible Gidey, the German ‘Wunderkind’ Konstance Klosterhalfen and a few others and the 5000m will be a very hard-fought battle.
Beatrice Chepkoech is the World Record Holder and World Champion in the 3000m steeplechase and after her 5km world road record recently, she must fancy her chances of adding the Olympic title to her trophy cabinet. But the steeple is always a tightly contested event.
The women’s marathon is always one I look forward to. While I do not expect South Africa’s Gerda Steyn to be a medal contender, she has proven to be an incredibly versatile athlete and do not be surprised if she breaks the South African Marathon record soon (2:26.35). In a brutally cold and wet London, Gerda clocked 2:26.51 running with virtually no company – so in essence time trailing. But she will be up against a plethora of Kenyans, Ethiopians and Americans who will be the real medal contenders.
Let’s get to know more about you. Where does your passion for sport and journalism come from?
I have always loved sport. It’s just been something that has always resonated with me. I loved playing football, tennis and was pretty decent (in my long-ago youth), but I fell in love with athletics when I watched Carl Lewis win the 100m at the 1984 Olympics.
From there my fascination with many of the Olympic sports just grew. I am mesmerized by the drama that is enacted in front of us and was privileged to be in London for the 2012 Games. 2008 and 2016 I covered for the SABC as a journalist, reporter and commentator from here (so “virtual” sport is not something new to me).
Swimming, triathlon, canoeing and rowing have all grabbed my imagination and I’m really excited to see surfing making its debut. Having grown up at the coast, I loved trying my hand at surfing – I was never really good, but the rush of “catching a wave” is something special and seeing the cutbacks, floaters, barrel and tube rides is something special. There is just such drama in sport, that I cannot help but be drawn to it.
Who do you draw inspiration from and why?
That’s a tough one. From various sources I guess. I befriended a commentator from the BBC in the mid 90’s when he would come to South Africa to commentate on the Engen Grand Prix Summer Series. He inspired me to pursue commentary, although it is very difficult in South Africa to build an Olympic Sport Commentary career as so many of them are not covered live, sadly. There have been one or two people in the broadcasting industry who were mentors to me, purely because of their ability to make magic in the edit suites. My girlfriend has been through some very rough times in her life and given the current depression and debilitating situation, I draw a lot of strength from her.
Since you’re a freelance Olympic Journalist and the event takes place every four years, what do you leading up to the next event?
The Games may only come about once every four years, but the Olympic Sporting codes have world championships, leagues, seasons and so on. So, there is always something that is happening. My career path, though, has changed from covering sport to becoming a content producer, which means I no longer wait for events to happen to work, but I am in a position to tell the stories throughout the year. Finding clients who are willing and able to financially support this career path is another story though.
You’ve shed light on female athletes you’ve admired throughout your career. Why do you think it is so important for you to stand up for women in sports?
It is not just sport is it. The truth is the that for millennia we have lived in a male dominated society. Male rules. Patriarchy. That is the norm, and it is simply not right. In particular in women’s sport the disparities have been shocking. There is this feeling that women’s sport just does not attract the viewership, it is not nearly as explosive as male sport; or it is not dramatic enough to attract sponsors. This is just pure hogwash.
There is no denying that in many sporting codes women are behind in the levels to men. That though is simply because of lack of opportunity. Look at how the women’s tennis circuit has blossomed. Why? Well because they have been given an opportunity.
The women’s world marathon record stands at 2:14.04 behind Brigid Kosgei. In South Africa there are only a handful of men who can run that time. Women’s’ cricket is blossoming. The women’s football World Cup was in so many aspects way more exciting than the men’s game. No dramatic clutching an ankle that was tapped and then the player rolls in agony for minutes.
Have you seen the grace and power of women’s rowing or canoeing? One of the greatest privileges I have had was to commentate on Bridgitte Hartley’s Bronze medal in the K1 1000m race in London. Guts, determination and fighting spirit delivered with grace and poise. It was simply wonderful to watch. Women’s sport is not just a by-product, or a nice to have. It is epic in its own right and women athletes deserve all the accolades they are getting – and more.
What impact are you hoping to make with your work in women sport?
One of my very first interviews was with an up-and-coming athlete who had destroyed Senior Athletes while still being a junior. I am talking about Rene Kalmer who at 17 became SA Junior and Senior 1500m Champion, SA Junior and Senior Cross-Country Champion, SA Junior and Senior 10km Champion and won the unofficial SA 5km championships.
I was privileged to write about her in Runners World. That was my first real exposure to the discrepancy in sports reporting on women’s sport. We are besotted in this country by soccer (make no mistake that is a global phenomenon), rugby and cricket. All sports in which women in South Africa were just nor featuring at that time.
This has changed a bit, but still has a long way to go. Reporting on some of the most epic performances and meeting some incredible female athletes has just showcased how little coverage they are receiving. Please do not misunderstand. Sports reporting is about exceptional results and performances. These catch the eye. So just as a mediocre men’s performance is not covered, neither should one of a women be covered. That is simply a generic rule. By celebrating and promoting women’s achievements I hope to be able to make some form of contribution to the growth of women’s sport, on the field, in the media spectrum as well as in sponsorships.
What challenges have you seen in women face in sports over the years? And how would you advise gsport4girls to improve on them?
COVID-19 has thrown everyone a massive curve ball. Sponsor budgets are tighter than ever. This will have an impact on all sport and with women’s sport in general, with a few exceptions, really struggling on that front, it is imperative that women’s sport shows value to potential sponsors. And that is not just having a banner at an event or a logo on tv. It is about giving the sponsor some physical form of return. The SPAR Ladies series, road racing, is immensely successful in that SPAR are speaking directly to their shoppers. It is a win-win situation. Sponsors need some literal bang for their buck (this is a general rule in sponsorship these days and applies to men and women).
Women sports will continue to face challenges in terms of actual sporting development and opportunities. That is a big challenge, and it needs to be addressed first and foremost at school level. Sport needs to become a culture again. Something to be strived for and not just something to tick off on the education box.
But in order to grow, women’s sport needs a top down, bottom-up approach. It must be cool to do sport at school again; it must also become an achievement at pro level. An achievement that is praised, lauded and promoted. For that to happen, the legends need to start speaking very vocally in support of women’s sport. And by legends I am referring to both genders.
While it is fantastic to see the work being done by a Elana Meyer, Caster Semenya and Penny Heyns, the likes of Siya Kolisi, Wayde van Niekerk and so on need to do their bit too and promote women’s sport (not that they are not doing it already – these are mere examples used to drive home the point).
gsport4girls need to continue in what they are doing. Kass has done a phenomenal job in promoting women’s sport, especially their social media platforms, and of late also so-called traditional media platforms. I would love to see the latter becoming a much bigger “partner” in the process.
Awareness is key. The continued engagement with sponsors is vital, not just from a financial aspect, but dealing with sponsors allows access into board rooms where decisions are made. And these need to be nurtured and developed all the time. I’m pretty sure an international alignment is on the cards already, if not, then that I believe that would be the next big step.
As journalists are storytellers, what stories have surprised you regarding women in sports and why?
We need to clarify something here and it is often misunderstood. There are different media types, and your hard news media is not about storytelling, but about actual reporting. Meaning the role is not that of a “PR” scenario. The media’s job is not build a brand, promote an event etc. It is their job to report on these. Both good and bad. There are media elements that are storytelling – your magazine type TV and Radio Shows, magazines such You etc. So, we need to be careful about “lumping” media as storytellers.
I cannot pin-point one story that has surprised me, but what has definitely caught my attention and has me intrigued is the Caster Semenya story. For obvious reasons I think. This is not over, even if she does decide to no longer challenge World Athletics. The “story” has gone beyond Caster and is now actively discussed and analysed globally from sports scientists, to Federations, to politicians, to human rights activists. No matter what Caster decides, some very hard questions are being asked, and the answers will go a long in showing how far, or not, mankind has come.
Do you think giving women in sports the platform to tell their stories will help in marketing themselves?
No doubt. Absolutely no doubt. The more platforms available to women, the more women’s sport will be spoken about. And it needs to be spoken about by women, not men.
There is a fantastic new YouTube Channel called The Female Athlete and is hosted by Sport Scientist, Shona Hendricks. She discusses all thing women’s sport (mainly in relation to running and endurance sport). This includes some very personal elements. And this is what women’s sport needs more of. Women’s challenges discussed by women.
Do you see South Africa hosting the Olympics one day?
I hope not. The hosting of an Olympic Games under its current format is exorbitantly expensive. I believe South Africa should be pitching for more World Championship events.
What is your message to the youth who aspire to be in your position one day?
Don’t do it for the money. You will not become rich as a journalist. But it is a very fruitful and rewarding career. I have been truly fortunate in that I have met and interviewed some of the greatest athletes ever seen. Understand it is a process. I have been in the industry for almost 30 years, it doesn’t happen overnight.
There is always something new to learn, you never stop. You need to work hard and smart and find ways and means of establishing yourself as a sought-after expert. That takes time, getting to know the right people…. And a fair bit of luck. But ultimately. It has to be a passion. Not just a job.