Runners can plough millions into the city

2011-01-15 00:00

“THE municipality is strangling athletics” — that is the feeling among the athletic community following the enforced cancellation of Sunday’s Alex Wasps 21km and the total inaction over the provision of a track that was initially approved in 2002.

“It doesn’t matter if you talk to elected, paid or even appointed officials, you get nowhere: they talk of helping, make promises but no action and it is the local citizens and commerce who are losing out on so many fronts,” said John Hall, KZN Athletics representative in the Midlands region and chairman of the Natal Carbineers, one of the biggest sports clubs in Pietermaritzburg.

Excluding the Comrades Marathon the city is host to 12 races that require Traffic Department support. Based on estimates and accounts from 2010 the total subsidy being requested from the municipality budget would be less than R500 000, and yet conservative calculations show that the 15 000 runners in these events, plus their supporters, would plough around R14 million into local commerce.

“It’s not a cost — it’s an investment for the city,” says Hall, who is also the race director of the Maritzburg Marathon, which faced a bill of R96 000 for the 60 officers allocated to the race. A strike by the officers saw only 15 appear on the day and an account for R2 900. That weekend attracted over 4 000 runners and families to the City of Choice, many staying over for at least one night.

“We did over R12 000 turnover at the finish, and with our vouchers the Scottsville outlet was so busy it had to close the doors for a period,” said Dirkie Weideman, operator of the El Sombrero Spur. Weideman provided runners with discount vouchers for his Scottsville Mall Spur.

“It was huge exposure. It was mainly visiting runners who brought their whole families for a meal after the race. I’m definitely going to do something similar this year. We made more at the race than at the cricket or soccer.”

The Spur scenario is but one example of the commercial impact, which crosses everything from newspapers to petrol, and in many cases, such as the Alex Wasps race, the worsrol tables are run by charities that use the income for numerous causes within the community.

The loss of the smaller events has an even greater impact on the clubs. “We rely on the race income to run the club for the year,” says Vic Hydes of Alex Wasps.

Most of the club races have an entry fee of R40 and attract a field of 500 runners, which means for small events the cost of traffic support exceeds the direct race income. If the charges remain the races will be forced off the road unless they can find sponsors and the community will not only lose the events but also millions in income.

“Running is probably the cheapest sport, which makes it accessible to all communities, many of whom cannot afford to be involved in other sports,” said Hall. Worldwide athletics is acknowledged as providing the foundation of running, jumping and throwing skills for all other land-based sports, which is one reason that athletics is given high priority in sports development in many countries and communities, but not seemingly in the Msunduzi Municipality.

Eight years after approval for a synthetic track there is still no finality on the location, let alone a spade being put into the ground.

“This has been going on for many years. In the past year it became clear that Alexandra Park is an unacceptable venue to one grouping. It seems that we are being pushed from venue to venue in order that it never actually materialises — there appears to be no willingness from the municipality at any level to have the track in the city,” says Chris White, sports development officer with the International Association of Missions (IAM), who is seconded here from Texas and has been coaching athletics in the city for four years.

Towards the end of 2010 the Municipal Manager’s Office was approached to arrange a meeting between the Department of Sport and Recreation, KZN Athletics and the district council, which may have secured additional funding from the department’s 2010 budget and resolved some issues around the land ownership, but this meeting was never set up.

Similar development projects have been undertaken in Ulundi, Richard Bay, Newcastle and Umlazi and are considerably more advanced without experiencing the problems that continue to stall the province’s capital.

Although KwaZulu-Natal is the second most populous province in South Africa it currently only has synthetic tracks at King’s Park in Durban, Chatsworth, and Ulundi with a preparation layer already down in Richards Bay. The province is so deprived of track and field facilities that the interest at senior level has dropped off in the past decade. It is no surprise that even the KZN Athletics office was unable to remember the last time a KZN-bred senior athlete won gold at the SA Track and Field Championships, an honour held by sprinter Lee-Roy Newton.

One of the most consistent complaints is that neither the mayor, Mike Tarr, nor municipal manager Thokozani Maseko respond to correspondence or return calls even when they set the time schedule for the reply.

The Witness contacted both with a list of questions for comment. At time of writing no response, verbal or in writing, has been received from either office.

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