Student sport: South Africans fail to find their funds

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THE COST of gold at the World Student Games is about pounds 1,000 per ounce, judging by the experience of Simon Thirsk, South Africa's first winner here.

Thirsk is one of only two South African swimmers to make the trip to the Mediterranean island, 14 others having been left at home because of a cash crisis. Yesterday, both Thirsk and his team-mate, Nicholas Folker, saw a repayment on their personal investment by delivering medals in the San Hugo pool, Thirsk in the 100m backstroke, Folker with bronze in the 100m freestyle.

Both are students at the University of Hawaii, and they only found out last month that lack of funding from the South African government would mean that they had to pay their own way to Europe. "It's been very tough, but our university thought it was important that we be here," said Thirsk, who swam a personal best 55.98sec from lane one to win the final. "My dad has to do two jobs just to keep me in college, so finding extra money is not easy."

In total, the South Africans have had to leave behind one-third of their original 180-strong team, the absence of the football squad possibly costing them more than just the chance of medals. "The grant we received from our government could not cover all our costs," Malumbete Ralethe, South Africa's chef de mission, said.

For Algeria, the African nation that might have replaced South Africa had officials been given more than 24 hours' notice, the late withdrawal was particularly aggravating. Fifa officials at the tournament have suggested that the South Africans may face a fine, and the absence may also have an effect on their 2006 World Cup bid.