As leader in sports transformation, running is streets ahead

2008-02-23 00:00

NORRIE WILLIAMSON evaluates the changes, good and bad, to road-running since his plane first touched down in South Africa 27 years ago.

MILESTONES punctuate everyone’s life and this morning is one such event for me. It not only marks exactly 27 years since I arrived in South Africa, but, with a birthday in the coming week, I have spent in excess of 50% of my life in this beautiful, exciting and charismatic country.

It is impossible to ignore one’s heritage, but with the vast scenery, diversity of opportunity, weather and cheerfulness of its people, it was easy to find a passion for South Africa. In spite of her strong Afrikaans heritage, my wife has often said I am even more South African than she is. As an athlete, coach and administrator I have had the honour of representing the country, and with the announcement of the first free elections in 1993 I became a proud, card-carrying South African. Today’s milestone makes it statistically indisputable: In the words of our president: “Today I am a [South] African”.

Like most milestones, it prompts reflection and review of the intervening period.

Additionally, today marks another year in athletics, a sport I only adopted on arrival in South Africa, where initially I had hoped to build from a relatively high standard of Scottish rugby that saw me on the bench for the district side against Sean Fitzpatrick’s touring All Blacks. As an 85-kg hooker, my initial experience of South African refereeing at scrums convinced me that my neck and body had greater life-span as a runner. Reading an article on Comrades and Two Oceans, in the UK Jogging magazine on the plane, had sown the seed before any wheels touched ground.

The comparisons, evolution and development of the sport make for a checkered report card.

A 72nd-placed 2:45:40 in my second marathon, the 1981 Inter-Provincial in Durban, would suggest that the racing standard has improved. But closer inspection shows that there were only 131 entrants for that three-lap beachfront course, compared to the 993 in this month’s SA Championships. International runners heavily loaded this year’s top results, whereas isolation restricted the 1981 event to South African citizens and residents. SA Marathon Champion Charne Bosman’s 2:42:28 was two minutes faster than 1981 inter-provincial winner Sonja Laxton.

Consideration of local races provides a better reflection. An 81:42 in the Hillcrest half-marathon, which doubled as the 1981 Natal Championships, resulted in a 78th position. The same time last Sunday placed eleventh.

The 1984 Savages marathon in March had 43 runners under 2:45:20, a time that would have made the top 10 on Sunday and probably even higher in next week’s Newlands event, which covers a similar but less hilly course.

Club time trial standards have also dropped. In 1981 you had to run sub-31 minutes to make the top 25 in the weekly Savages time trial, and even faster on nights when over 100 runners would line up for the flat two-lapper. Today that time will get you into the newspaper results, often as a top three.

Although many of the races of the early 1980s are still held, they have been augmented over the years. In 1982, there were only around 450 races in the whole country: racing was sparse but intense. By 1992, Natal had 87 races, which became 97 by 1997 and today, although the number of events remains the same (because there simply are no more weekends!), many events offer multiple distances further diluting the competition, prize money and sponsorships.

The counterside is that the unification of sport and the new South Africa of the early 1990s brought greater reach, embracing more people, with the 78 clubs of 1992 escalating dramatically to 130 clubs by 1997 and to 178 KZNA clubs last year — around 10 000 licensed senior runners.

Some people attribute the loss of standards to the increase in club numbers and a decrease in club members. It seems more likely that it results from the buying power of professional clubs. Comparing inter-club competitions in Comrades and local races offers some substantiation for this view.

The 1981 up-run Comrades, which attracted over 5 000 runners, was won for the first time by Bruce Fordyce running in Wits University colours. The competition for the Gunga Din team trophy was fierce, not only in club versus club, but also on a provincial basis. Clubs identified six to eight runners who as a squad would train, race and plot their attack on making the top three. There were as many column inches written about potential team winners as there were about the top man and woman.

The shotgun, “buy anyone with speed” approach adopted by so-called professional clubs not only results in the sponsor with the biggest wallet and squad winning the Gunga Din, but limits the competition to two or three clubs, and kills off any interest for the average clubs.

Gone are the highly competitive days of RAC versus Callies, Hillcrest, Savages and many more. Recently the professional club obsession has even resulted in manipulation of the rules in order to win at all costs. More than once, the Gunga Din could not be presented as officials needed to do further investigations. Is it any surprise that there is virtually no interest in the team competition?

This has decanted to club races, where people question the reason for having a team prize that is effectively only open to two or three clubs. On the positive side, the professional teams provide much-needed reward and coverage to the individual talented athletes, many of whom support extended families from their athletic gains.

This is an area requiring serious consideration.

Where is the General Tyre Club Championship of the 1980s? Each province had an inter-club championship to find the top six-man team who would represent the club and province at the national inter-club championships. With individual and team awards in various categories this built club spirit and camaraderie — and was fun.

Other team opportunities existed, not only on the road, but in cross country and middle distance leagues. Then the Polly Shortts leagues that gave points to finishers of all standards based on the total percentage of each club’s runners that completed the race.

The big daddy of team events was the 24-hour relay for teams of 10 runners each running mile repeats, to see how many miles could be amassed in one full day. The preparation resulted in dedicated squad training for seniors, age groupers, male and female, and frequently saw many athletes go on to greater things.

The greatest challenge to the re-introduction of such events is the need for a clear definition of a professional club, so that they can be eliminated or separated into another category and so that the true inter-club competition can return.

In my opinion, running’s most successful and rewarding change since 1981 has been the ease and speed of transformation.

While rugby, cricket and many others still flounder with the challenges, the pendulum of change in athletics has swung and, to a great extent, is back with a focus on the sport.

The problems of apartheid sport seemed overstated when I arrived in 1981, as I appeared to share the same road with people of all colours and cultures on a weekly basis: particularly when most races were being won by fleet-footed black runners. It was only as I got to know individual runners that the truth became obvious. This was driven home one night in Johannesburg, when we were refused entry to a restaurant when celebrating Mark Plaatjies’s win in the Johannesburg City Marathon.

Students and township runners explained the peer pressure they faced if joining established clubs. Ironically, the more I learned and supported the movement for change, the greater peer pressure negatively impacted my own sporting and social life: as I found out when “getting clearance” to go out with a girlfriend from Foreign Affairs, my international writings even resulted in the NIS opening a file on my activities.

Athletics has become a leader in transformation, which means it has also been forced to grapple with many of the challenges that come from being the first, but the growth of the athletics footprint as evidenced by the number of clubs creates the potential for the future of the sport across all its disciplines.

In the right environment, this growth can become exponential, as events also reach out to unheralded venues. The Nedbank Soweto Marathon has blossomed since moving into the heart of the township, and this year had more runners than the Comrades. This year, an SA Championship will be held for the first time in a township, when the Nedbank Half-Marathon is run around Motherwell, outside PE.

There have been changes in 27 years, and while changes often divert the focus of attention, from where I look, the potential of the next quarter century far exceeds where we were when my plane touched down in 1981.

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