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We Made the Olympics – A classic underdog story


The Olympics is the greatest contemporary symbol of human achievement, it is the platform of champions, performance and victory. It is also the single greatest platform of human endeavour, spirit and failure. The story of how Veldskoen came to the Olympics is remarkable, a true battle of will, perseverance and of course luck. Lastly, human spirit and fair play.

Of course, we are not athletes and this story has nothing to do with sport. This is a business and brand story and the two protagonists are Ross Zondagh and me. We are two friends who shared a good idea and dreamt of getting to the Olympics. This is how we did it.

The story starts on Friday the 5th of August 2016 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio De Janeiro at the opening ceremony of the 31st Olympic Games. At the opening ceremony, the teams were dressed in outfits representing their individual countries, they looked wonderful. Like most South Africans, we were proudly anticipating the arrival of South Africa, the rainbow nation, Mzansi colour and energy. Here they come, the announcer says, “Afrique De Sud” and there they are, I see the flag, I see the team. What are they wearing????? Ill-fitting, bland tracksuits. Where is South Africa in that outfit? Simply put, it was missing and it saddened me.

A couple of weeks later I was visiting my mother in Plettenberg Bay, a beach town 560km from Cape Town, roughly a 6-hour drive away. It’s a beautiful drive but one that I have done many many times, it can, for me, get a little boring. About an hour into the journey I gave Ross Zondagh a call. Some context is needed here.

Ross and I have been friends since we were about 11 years old. We met while shopping for school uniforms the week before starting high school. We attended Pretoria Boys High School, a very good public school with a rich history, tradition and interesting alumni. The school served as a jail to Winston Churchill and counts Elon Musk amongst its alumni. We grew up together and stayed friends after school, we have far too many war stories to share!

Back to the most important phone call of both our lives. Thankfully Ross answered, at the time he was driving around from one building site to another. Ross was a builder at the time and I was running a fast-failing art advisory business, more on our complete lack of brand and retail experience later. To start, our conversation was pretty mundane, we got the weekend’s sports results out of the way, a quick moan about the weather and then came the conversation that would lead to a remarkable Olympic journey, a global footwear brand and a wonderful feel-good business that positively impacts South Africa.

We Made the Olympics – A classic underdog story

09h27am: “Did you see how rubbish the Olympic team looked at the opening of the games?”

What followed was a 20-minute debate on what the team should have been wearing. What could they have worn that captured what is so amazing about our wonderful country South Africa? There are surprisingly few obvious options, to be honest, the famous Madiba shirt maybe, possibly a Ndebele patterned fabric? The trick was to find a product that every single South African knew was South African.

09h48am: “It has to be a Veldskoen.”

For all readers outside of Africa, a Veldskoen is a shoe that has been in Africa for more than 300 years. It has been worn in multiple southern African countries, it has been worn in schools, on farms, on hikes, and in cities. It has been worn by, young, old and across many many cultures. It ticked the “everybody knows a Veldskoen” box. There was only one problem. Veldskoen were about as exciting as a cardboard box. Functional, beige, familiar. Not very exciting.

At this point in the conversation I asked why they have to be so boring, and why could they not have a little colour added to them? I had just travelled to the US and bought a pair of Cole Haan Lunarlon Brogues with a Nike sole. What was really interesting was that the sole was bright, luminous yellow. I sent Ross a WhatsApp message with an image and he immediately got what I meant.

10h05am: “What if Veldskoen had colourful soles and laces?”

At the time I had a young guy working for me who knew how to photoshop images. I hung up with Ross, called my designer and asked him to find some images of Veldskoen on the internet. He sent me a few to look at and I picked one. I asked him to colour the soles and laces and send them back to me, he asked how many colours and I said to do the colours of the South African flag. 30 minutes later the images came through and I sent them to Ross.

10h40am: “These look incredible”

That was the start, at that moment Ross and I started Veldskoen Shoes. What followed was a whirlwind six years with stories that I will unpack in more detail in more writing but suffice to say we ended up being a major South African brand and available in 32 countries globally. We had done so well and we were of course so proud of the team and our families for what we had achieved, but we had unfinished business. We needed the Olympics.

A year out from the 2020 games we had our first conversation around the Olympics. How do we talk to the Olympic Committee, who handles their sports sponsorship, where do you begin to get your shoes on our athletes? Of course, like many times before we had no idea but we got to work, we made calls, reached out to mates and we kept striking out. It was clear we needed help but we didn’t even know who could help on this front. So we turned to the internet for help. We filmed a short video of me looking into a phone camera and asking South Africa to help us get our shoes on to the athletes at the Olympics. Why not, it was a long shot.
The day after putting the video out my phone rang in the morning and I missed it, my phone rings quite a bit so nothing too surprising there. Around an hour later it rang again and I picked up.

“Nick, this is Ravi Govender, I am the CEO of the South African Olympic Committee. I hear that you are looking for me.”

That was a surreal moment that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. It showed the power of asking for help and also the very sharp end of what is great about social media.

Ravi Govender and Sascoc were incredible, they had fully recognised that they needed to improve on what the athletes wore in Rio and wanted to work with local businesses to create a uniform for the upcoming games in Tokyo. Very quickly they identified with our vision of putting the colourful-soled shoes on the team and committed to Veldskoen. We committed to sponsoring all the athletes in both the able-bodied and paralympic games. It was a big stretch for our business but of course, we were going to do it at all costs.

Of course, Covid hit and all of humanity paused, the games were in doubt, they were either going to be cancelled or postponed to 2021. We were devastated but of course, there were far more important challenges to face during that time, our team’s health, our viability considering retail was shut down and rebuilding post covid. More on all of that at a later date.

For months we were glued to the news waiting to hear what would happen to the Games, it went back and forth for months and eventually, confidence levels were getting higher for the games to happen. Sascoc confirmed that planning had begun to send a team under strict travel and covid restrictions. It was on.

Around 4 months before the games, we all woke one morning to the news that Mr Price, the massive sports retailer in South Africa had just signed a massive endorsement for the South African team going to the Olympics. They had committed to a multi-million dollar sponsorship to produce and dress the team at all sporting, leisure and official events. I immediately called Ravi to find out if we were now out of consideration for the opening ceremony.

“Nick, we are still negotiating with Mr Price about Veldskoen”

What followed was a very very long week. By all accounts we should have been completely out of the running, Mr Price had written a really big cheque and to be fair, had the right to choose what the team wore at the opening ceremony. There was a sense of imminent disappointment and failure on the horizon. Then my phone rang again.

“Guys, your Veldskoen will be worn at the Olympic opening ceremony.”

We were over the moon and completely surprised. Sascoc had asked that their commitment to us be honoured and Mr Price agreed. It was a sensational moment for a government organization that had taken much criticism and a brilliant moment for a massive business to give an opportunity to a small local player like Veldksoen. I cannot thank both Sascoc and Mr Price enough.

On the 23rd of July 2021, our team gathered at our offices in Paarden Eiland to watch the opening ceremony. The atmosphere was tense, we simply could not believe that the team would wear our shoes, it was still a long shot in our minds. Nation after nation marched out and they looked incredible. Patiently we waited. Then.

There they were, South Africa’s athletes. There was the flag, it came into focus, there it was. Our beloved Veldskoen.

We were overjoyed, Ross and I cried, and I am still in tears just writing about it. Our Olympic dream came true and we are truly grateful to everyone, and everything that made it happen.

Thank you for your time.



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