Police hit gym to tone up for the World Cup

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South Africa's police officers will have to be able squeeze into their uniforms and hit the gym as part of a programme aimed at making them better able to chase criminals in a country with one of the world's highest violent crime rates.

A study this month in the city of Port Elizabeth had found more than half of its police force were medically obese, raising questions about their ability to keep fans safe during the Fifa World Cup. So yesterday, about 200 police trainees kicked off the Viva Fitness! programme, doing jumping jacks and other calisthenics. Activities including the "ice-cube catch" and "tyre drag" were also on offer.

Officers' body fat percentage is being measured. They will be required to maintain the uniform size issued when they leave the academy. Those who exceed the size of the uniform they are issued will be given a year to get back into shape. If they do not, they will be in breach of policy and will no longer be allowed to be part of the organisation, the National Police Commissioner Bheki Cele said.

"Police officers should be able to walk with their heads held high, their stomach in, and chest out, not the other way around," he added.

The police service has committed to trying to install gyms at all police stations, as well as signing agreements with private gym partners to provide subsidised facilities for their staff.

Director Phil Vuma, who has been in the police force for 24 years, thinks the biggest benefit of the new fitness programme will be a shift in public perception, especially among criminals. "Criminals are less likely to commit crime if they see the police force is lean and mean," he said.

The police service maintains that the programme is not related to the upcoming World Cup tournament. but concerns have been raised about the safety of an estimated 500,000 visitors expected to descend on South Africa in June and July for the footballing extravaganza.