Obituary: Alison West

2010-01-14 00:00

ALISON West, the first and only woman to become chairperson of the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA), died recently after a long illness. West, who was a founding member of the association and chairperson from 2000 to 2001, was diagnosed with cancer in July last year. She fought valiantly, undergoing chemotherapy for brain tumours. However, her condition worsened and she died on December 22, 2009.

West was involved in every facet of the work of the CMA and was responsible for implementing some innovative changes within the organisation. For long-standing members of the organisation, one of the first and most noticeable was when she took over the running of the Comrades shop. She changed the way the shop was run, revising the stock and marketing strategy. Within three years, the business had reached a point where in three days it had a turnover of R1 million. Largely as a result of this, the association was able to buy the house that is now Comrades House in Connaught Street.

She was responsible for the acquisition and deployment of the first timing chip (Championchip), an innovation which ensures the accurate timing of mass events. West went to Holland and Germany to see it in action and motivated for its use in South Africa.

Current chairperson Dave Dixon said the Comrades Marathon in its entirety played a huge role in West’s life and was her special passion.

He said her involvement started in 1979, when her husband Peter ran his first Comrades Marathon and West seconded him. The couple became involved in race organising as Peter was on the Collegian Harriers organising committee as the race organiser. She was a founding member of the Comrades Marathon Association when it started in 1984 and served the organisation over a period of 25 years, 19 of those on the executive committee, where she held the posts of vice chairperson (1997 to 2000) and chairperson.

Dixon said that when chatting to West on numerous occasions about her special memories of her chairmanship, she recalled her proudest moments as being part of the steering committee on transformation within the CMA, and being at the helm of the Millennium Comrades which saw 25 000 runners, the largest field ever.

She was awarded honours with life membership of the CMA in 2001. In a tribute at the time, Mick Winn, the longest-serving chairperson of the organisation, said that West had met one of the most challenging periods in the history of the race head- on … “with an honest, forthright and resolute approach, earning the respect and admiration of her colleagues, CMA sponsors, runners, members of the media, the athletics fraternity and the wider sporting community.” She was also awarded KwaZulu-Natal colours for her contribution to athletics.

West was born Alison Grace King in Oranjemund in the then South West Africa on November 14, 1949. She grew up in Cape Town where her father was the secretary of De Beers Mines and she attended Sans Souci School for Girls.

She met and married Peter West in 1971. At the time, he was working for a bank and she at a building society. The couple moved to Ladysmith and from there to Pietermaritzburg. West worked at Absa Bank for 29 years and was branch manager in Howick. Friends and family remark that the couple were inseparable and she supported him in all his sporting endeavours, whether it was sky diving or scuba diving. Peter, in his tribute to his wife, said that when he started canoeing, she was his second at all his races and that he could not have completed a Dusi without her.

Similarly, she may have been chairperson of the CMA but each time her husband ran a race, she was there to support him. “Every race I ran, she attended. She was always the group transporter, was always at the finish line with my tog bag and always made my pasta meal the night before. She saw that I had my energy drink and woke me up on race day with honey and banana sandwiches and fresh coffee.”

The Wests had two sons, Anthony and Mark. Anthony died tragically while doing a triathlon at the age of 13. Like his mother, he suffered from asthma. Mark died in July 2006 at the age of 28 from a heart ailment. Besides her husband, West leaves a sister and a brother.

Dixon said the CMA was privileged to have had a person such as West at its helm because she served the organisation with commitment, integrity and diligence.

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