In 1936, the German physician Ernst Jokl joined Stellenbosch University and established the first department of physical education in South Africa. That pioneering journey continued this year with the appointment of Prof Wayne Derman as Executive Head of the Department of Sport Science.
This Department brings together the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences' Division of Sport Science, Division of Biokinetics and the Institute of Sport and Exercise Medicine (ISEM), and is likely to eventually be renamed the Department of Exercise, Sport and Lifestyle Medicine.
Derman, who will retain his position as ISEM director which he assumed in 2015, is delighted with the latest developments in the Department. “Strategically, this makes us much more focused on collaboration between the three Divisions," he says. “Already there is a very strong collaborative history across these Divisions and the new Department will enhance that."
The Department of Sport Science, which has around 400 staff members and students, covers a range of multidisciplinary skills and includes psychology, behavioural change and aspects of the social sciences. “There are a number of combined aspects to the work that we do," explains Derman. “One of them is that we are very focused on human performance at a competitive level."
However, he points out, the focus of the Department extends way beyond competitive sport: “Sport and physical activity are strong aspects of medicine, namely lifestyle medicine. It is important that people see physical activity as an everyday means of mitigating the risk factors for chronic diseases of lifestyle."
He adds that the Department has done much work in the past in nearby communities in the Tygerberg area such as Bishop Lavis as well as in the Stellenbosch area in Cloetesville, Kayamandi and other communities: “All of these are about various aspects of physical activity and healthy lifestyles. We hope to enhance these platforms and make our work even more impactful."
Derman strongly believes that the Department's research should play a meaningful role in improving people's lives: “In keeping with Stellenbosch University's strategic goal, it is my vision to make this entire Department research-focused. We want to do research that's going to make a big difference to humanity. That's why lifestyle is such an important area of focus of this Department.
“Of course we're interested in having the best rugby team and the best netball team and all of those other aspects of performance. But the really impactful work we're going to do is on how to get the population to move in a safe and healthy way."
Derman cites the work of the Division of Biokinetics as an example: “Embedded in this Division is kinderkinetics – an area focused on the provision of movement and sport to very young children, especially those with impairments."
Adapted sport and physical activity for individuals with disability is one of the Department's foremost areas of expertise. “We are amongst the world leaders in the field of para- and adapted sports medicine," Derman states.
“We have strong ties with the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and Maties Parasport. Much of our work is studying how people with disabilities can participate and excel in sport in an environment which we have made as safe as possible through injury and illness prevention."
Derman points out that at least 15 percent of South Africa's population has some form of physical disability and that up to 65 percent of South Africans develop chronic diseases of lifestyle: “That's why it's really important that our Department plays a role in getting all facets of our population – especially those with disability – to exercise effectively and without injury and illness."
Another key aspect of Derman's vision for the Department revolves around the Living Laboratory in Stellenbosch – to upgrade existing facilities in the sports precinct and to add a new ISEM facility in order to accommodate the various components of the Department in close proximity to each other.
Working towards achieving this goal over the next two to three years will be another major part of the journey Derman began when he embarked on a career in sports medicine in 1993 as a lecturer at the University of Cape Town's Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine. “I wanted to marry my passion for long-distance running with my passion for my work in sports medicine, which was then in its infancy in South Africa," he recalls.
“Now, sports medicine is a full speciality of the colleges of medicine. That's the result of the collective work we've done in the time I've spent in this career. It's been a very positive thing, to keep people healthy and to make sure they are able to do something that is good for them – to participate in exercise."
Derman says: “It's a privilege to work in this area of sport and exercise medicine; exercise medicine is where the real magic happens. Also, it's the ultimate challenge in medicine – you've got to know a lot about orthopaedics, but you've also got to know about internal medicine. That's why I enjoy working with people with disabilities, because then you've got an extra layer of complexity."
Derman has been co-director of the International Olympic Committee's Research Centre for Injury Prevention and Protection of Health of the Athlete in South Africa since 2009 and director of the FIFA Medical Centre of Excellence at Stellenbosch University since 2016.
He was also chief medical officer of Team South Africa at the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000 and in Athens in 2004. In addition, he has worked at six Paralympic Games as an IPC member. At the recent Winter Games in Beijing, he was asked to run with the torch. “It was an amazing honour," he says.
During his career, Derman has received a number of awards and honours. He singles out the Paul Harris Fellowship from Rotary International as among the most memorable: “I got that in recognition for work conducted with Paralympic athletes. That award went to provide a prosthetic leg for someone in Angola."
He is also especially proud of the award from South Africa's Minister of Health in 2005 for excellence in healthcare. “It's been a wonderful career," he says. And, of course, it is far from over. His appointment to head the Department of Sport Science is surely the beginning of an exciting new phase.
“This is meaningful work; it's about touching people's lives," says Derman. “To help people participate in exercise fulfils the requirements of a healthy lifestyle. It's a very, very powerful medicine."