Sport in a white cocoon

2013-07-01 00:00

ONCE upon a time, Pietermaritzburg was renowned as one of the more vibrant and productive sporting nurseries in South Africa.

It was only a couple of decades ago, can you believe, that the busy Victorian city of Pietermaritzburg was a prolific breeding ground for a wide variety of provincial and international players. Sleepy it might have been, but Pietermaritzburg punched well above its weight in a South African sporting context.

The city, an educational centre with a solid infrastructure, was a popular and flourishing home for pupils, students, families and businesses.

Quality schools in the city and the Midlands fed into various tertiary institutions, including a renowned, lively university, while strong club structures in competitive Natal leagues nurtured generations of sporting talent.

Local youngsters, supplemented by a steady stream of outsiders who arrived in Pietermaritzburg to chase fresh opportunities in attractive surrounds, settled and stayed ... and played.

The city was a permanent fixture on the South African sporting map. National and provincial tournaments and international matches were staged regularly in the capital. Touring teams and international heroes breezed in to play Natal and, occasionally, South African teams, in the City of Flowers and the Midlands.

But, of course, it could not last. It was a fragile façade, an unrealistic cover that provided a fairy-tale existence for the select few in a divided and manifestly unfair society.

It was sport of the white people, by the white people and for the white people. Blacks were out of sight and out of mind — once the pitches had been rolled, the grass cut and the drinks served.

It was a scenario as true of the capital of Natal as it was of the rest of segregated South Africa, but it was a fool’s paradise, a temporary, vanishing dream.

The changes of the early nineties were positive and sudden. The cake was finally to be shared among all race groups but, ironically, sport in the KZN Midlands was to suffer, not because the walls of apartheid had been toppled, but because the economic and social landscape in the city underwent dramatic change.

The glory years of Pietermaritzburg sport were largely of an amateur, discriminatory age. It was a time when players in individual and team sport could happily live, work and study in the Midlands while continuing with their weekend pursuits. Natal and South African teams provided reward for those who excelled.

But, by twist of fate, the end of segregation some 20 years ago roughly coincided with the general emergence of professionalism in sport.

The Nats, bless their cotton socks, had belatedly lifted the television ban in 1976 and sponsorship was becoming the name of the sporting game.

But the swing came at a time when, economically, Pietermaritzburg started falling off the pace, unable to match the salaries, incentives, sponsorships and bursaries offered by major companies and universities in the bigger cities. The decline is ongoing. Schools keep producing the raw talent, but youngsters from all walks of life now abandon the Midlands for the bright lights, to further their education, follow career paths, or play sport. This steady drain of sporting skills has been palpable, and clubs in Pietermaritzburg have suffered both in quality and quantity.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal and, indeed, the city of Pietermaritzburg, have almost overnight lost their allure and no longer do the most skilful stay to work, study and play.

Professional sport, based on squad systems with modern training and playing facilities, is obviously big-city business. Maritzburg has rapidly become a town of no choice, increasingly forced to feed off the crumbs left by Durban which, in turn, has the pick of its emerging talent. Poor Maritzburg’s relationship with prosperous South African sport echoes the lament from a forlorn student to his father:

Dear Dad,

No mon,

No fun,

Your son.

As does the father’s crisp response:

Too bad,

How sad,

Your dad.

Attitudes to fitness and exercise have also changed, with many turning to individual and recreational sport on leaving school, rather than joining clubs and teams. Mountain biking, road running, canoeing, golf and swimming are popular, while higher-profile team sports can do little to prevent the dwindling away of their meagre resources.

There are obvious exceptions and annually the international spotlight settles briefly on Pietermaritzburg’s three classic endurance events for runners, paddlers and swimmers.

The Comrades, first run in 1921, is the largest and oldest ultra-marathon in the world, and attracts annually in excess of 15 000 runners.

The famous Dusi Canoe Marathon was first held in 1951 and Ian Player was the winner, and only finisher, in a time of six days. This year, 1 420 paddlers finished the three-day Dusi, with the winner home in some eight hours.

The latest addition to this marathon triathlon is the Midmar Mile, the world’s largest open-water swimming event, which celebrated its 40th birthday this year with a new record entry of close to 18 000.

On the soccer front, Maritzburg United have battled valiantly to keep Pietermaritzburg alive in the Professional Soccer League. But, significantly and after five years in the PSL, even the Team of Choice cannot attract the support of a major sponsor and they play some of their bigger games in Port Elizabeth.

Just down the road is Woodburn Stadium, the headquarters of Midlands rugby, where no night games are played because it is too expensive to turn on the lights.

And, in-between, on the banks of the sluggish, polluted Duzi, is the Oval complex, where such sporting legends as Denis Compton, Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards once strutted. Today it is the muggers and rapists who are more likely to make the Alexandra Park headlines.

Author Tom Sharpe, back in 1971, described Pietermaritzburg as “half the size of a New York cemetery and twice as dead”.

If he could see it now …

There have been recent additions to the local sporting calendar. The annual South African Short Course Championships attracts the cream of South Africa’s swimmers to the city, while the excellent mountain-bike course through the Cascades forests now brings world championships to the city. But the face of Midlands sport has changed radically, leaving club administrators in all codes struggling for players and financial backing.

Families (and schools) in the Midlands continue to produce outstanding youngsters, but then wave them goodbye and watch as they blossom on some lush foreign field where there is more mon … and more fun.

THE many energetic years of quality sport (by the whites for the whites …) are a faded memory, though the long sporting tradition remains.

Sport was originally played at the Market Square and this was the venue for one of South Africa’s first rugby games — in 1870 — when City High School (later to become Maritzburg College) played Hermannsburg.

Wanderers (later to become Wasps Wanderers) was established as the first club in Natal in 1890.

The Oval became the headquarters for sport in 1877, with the diamond jubilee pavilion built in 1898. Horse racing was introduced at the present Scottsville race track and in 1917 plans were put in place to build Kershaw Park as the headquarters of Natal tennis.

From the twenties onwards, the corporation engaged in a form of municipal socialism for whites by direct investment in swimming baths and a range of facilities in Alexandra Park. It also aided private sports clubs through annual grants-in-aid and low-interest loans, and these practices continued until the eighties. Motor racing had its beginning in 1937, and races were staged in Alexandra Park before the move to the international Roy Hesketh circuit two decades later brought international riders and drivers to our doorstep.

Australian and England cricket teams played — and planted trees — at the Oval, while Jan Smuts Stadium (now Harry Gwala), built for soccer, also pioneered night cricket in South Africa.

Maritzburg Football Club first played in the NFL in 1968, won the Castle Cup a year later and finished third on the league log for three years in a row.

Currie Cup cricket and rugby matches were played annually in the city. And every wet November, the Natal country district cricketers would arrive, dividing their time equally between pub and club.

Club sport was competitive and popular. The city had four Moor Cup rugby clubs in Wasps, Maritzburg Collegians, Bobbies and Varsity. Today, only Varsity (Impi) and Maritzburg Collegians, who come and go, remain in the premier league.

Local and intercity soccer, rugby, cricket, hockey, tennis, squash, table tennis and badminton leagues flourished. Young players, capped at provincial schoolboy level in their home provinces, registered on the local campus every year and there were times when half the Natal Currie Cup cricketers and rugby players were based in Pietermaritzburg.

The Sax Young Cycle track produced provincial and national riders, regular galas were held at the Open Air Swimming Pool. Bowls clubs were busy, with some 15 clubs open to the public, while provincial and national tournaments were regularly held on local greens.

Pietermaritzburg, with the Ashworth, Mantle and Laing families prominent, was the hub of South African basketball, and Kershaw Park hosted numerous tennis events, including the annual Natal Witness junior tournament and the Natal Open, which attracted nationally ranked players. Polo and polocrosse enjoyed strong support in the Midlands, and so did horse racing at the Scottsville course.

Boycotts started in the sixties, along with increasingly restricted international contact as tours were cancelled. There was opposition from Sacos and small, feisty Aurora Cricket Club took on the National Party government’s ludicrous laws and went knock, knocking on Piet Koornhof’s door.

But inside the laager, the sporting folk — like Nero — played on, with the lack of overseas competition adding a sharp edge to the interprovincial rivalry.

If you were white, played sport and had your eye only on the ball, those were good times.

HUNDREDS of Springboks and national players have links with Pietermaritzburg, and many have made an impact on the world stage.

There was world-champions motorcyclists Kork Ballington and Jon Ekerold, yachtsman Bruce Dalling, Kelvin Lightfoot, who won world bowls titles in 1976, and Graeme Pope-Ellis was the Dusi King.

Among the many Test-rugby players was the legendary Springbok flyhalf Keith Oxlee, and Philip Nel, Gary Teichmann and Bob Skinstad captained the Springboks.

Joel Stransky was the Rugby World Cup match winner in 1995 and Butch James played a pivotal role in the 2007 triumph in France. (Dad Mike captained South Africa at soccer.)

Craig Jamieson led the first Natal team to win the Currie Cup — in Pretoria in 1990 — when Maritzburg Varsity wing Tony Watson scored the winning try and Stransky kicked the points.

There have been famous cricketers too. Jock Cameron, Herby Wade and Jackie McGlew captained South Africa, and one of the world’s fastest bowlers, Neil Adcock, moved to the city to see out his playing career. The 1980 Wisden Cricketer of the Year, Vince van der Bijl, all-rounder Mike Procter, Jonty Rhodes, fielder extraordinaire, and confrontational England batsman Kevin Pietersen, all learnt their trade in the Midlands. The city has produced a long list of Springbok canoeists and hockey players as well. Tennis player Greer Stevens was a Wimbledon doubles champion. Swimmer Darian Townsend has an Olympic gold medal and, more recently, mountain-biker Greg Minnaar has chalked up a series of world-title victories. Moulding the careers of many future provincial and international players have been dedicated coaches, including Skonk Nicholson (rugby), Sally White (squash), Mike Bechet (hockey), Carl Pachonick (basketball) and Wayne Riddin (swimming).

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