Sporting handicaps to level the playing field

Handicaps in the sporting world makes for more fair competition. However, the system can easily be manipulated. GEORGE LOUW takes a look at the abuse of these handicaps on and off the field

In 2010 and again in 2011 Hideki Matsuyama won the Asia Pacific Amateur Golf Championships. In 2021, at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, he became the first Japanese golfer to win a United States (US) Masters tournament. In interviews following the tournament, Matsuyama spoke of himself as a pioneer for Japanese golf and expressed the hope that this would pave the way for many Japanese children to pursue golf.

For me, this is significant as winning is not just about an achievement; it is about inspiring others to step up. However, inspiring others is as much about our integrity as a person as it is about our achievements. In sport, how we play the game is as important as the win.

Amateur golf, with its system of handicaps, is a wonderful example of this. Golf, as played by “ordinary” people is possibly the most social of all non-team sports, not just because of the 19th hole (the clubhouse bar), but because of the socialising and friendly competition on the course. It is often said that if you want to get to know a person’s true character, see how he behaves on the golf course.

Because of the social aspect of the game, there is a system of handicaps which levels the playing field. If a good player averages 72 shots over the eighteen holes on a golf course, the par score for that course is 72.

If another player averages 100 shots, they are 28 shots over par. This is considered their handicap and is factored into the scoring system. The winner is determined by the player who performs the best relative to their handicap even if this means more shots. Maintaining or improving on your personal average becomes the determining factor.

There are similar systems in disability sports. A friend told me how she came stone last in a swimming event, but because of the relative level of her disability compared to the other competitors, she won gold. The same holds true for team sports where there are collective scoring systems: the total scores of the players make up a team score that must be within specified ranges so that teams match up fairly.

The purpose of a handicap is to allow people who are amateurs at the game, or whose level of disability places them at non-competitive levels, to compete and still do well. It is also a means to compete against yourself. As a golfer, by practicing your golf you can step up from a 28 handicap to 20, 10 and eventually to play professionally.

If you keep at it, like Matsuyama, you may also one day wear the green jacket of a Master Golfer. If you are a swimmer with a disability who is able to swim 50 meters in 120 seconds today but next month you can do it in 100 seconds, you will feel fantastic about yourself.

But, as with life at large, there are always those who manipulate systems meant for the greater good to suit their own ends. In the last edition, I wrote about boosting, but there are also those who “down-perform” in order to get into a disability category that would allow them to outperform by simply stepping up their performance when at a major event.

Just as there are golfers that “work” at establishing poorer handicaps before an important competition, in order to improve their chances of winning.

Handicaps aren’t exclusive to the world of sport, nor down performers. The South African Department of Economic Development defines the purpose of Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) as ensuring “that the economy is structured and transformed to enable the meaningful participation of the majority of [South African] citizens”.

It aims to create capacity at all levels (for example, procurement, business development, ownership) for the entry of black entrepreneurs into the economy. B-BBEE is essential in harnessing the potential of black communities.

“A handicap allows amateurs to compete and still do well.”

In essence, B-BBEE is a form of handicap. It levels the playing field for previously disadvantaged persons to enter into the economic and sport environments, to prove their worth to society. It provides the opportunity for them to grow and excel.

Unfortunately, it has been captured by persons who manipulate the system toward serving their own selfish purposes.

For these people, it is not about an opportunity to prove their value to society. It has become an entitlement toward status, self-enrichment and power. There are many examples; our press overflows with them.

Peter Berger, a well-known sociologist, was once asked which is the better system, capitalism or socialism. His reply (paraphrased) was that neither system was good nor bad. It is what you make of them that makes them good or bad. The same holds true for handicap systems. The systems are neutral. It is how they are applied by government, business enterprises, sporting associations or individuals that make them either good or bad.

Our athletes, the able-bodied and those with disabilities, are soon leaving for Tokyo. Let’s base the selection of the athletes on their performances and not their race. Let’s base the appointment of the coaching teams on proficiency and not on race. Let’s base the appointment of the team management on expertise and not on race. And let’s go to Tokyo with the purpose to excel for our beloved South Africa.

Ida’s Corner is a regular column by George Louw, who qualified as a medical doctor, but, due to a progressing spastic paralysis, chose a career in health administration. The column is named after Ida Hlongwa, who worked as caregiver for Ari Seirlis for 20 years. Her charm, smile, commitment, quality care and sacrifice set the bar incredibly high for the caregiving fraternity. email: