Striving toward camaraderie

2009-05-22 00:00

THE Gunga Din trophy was initiated in 1931 and consists of a steel World War 1 helmet mounted on a shield which was donated by the Gunga Din Shell Hole of Moths (Memorable Order of Tin Hats). Lying down, the award is reminiscent of the burial mound of the warriors at the plain of Marathon in Greece, the historic starting point of the marathon and the words Gunga Din come from Rudyard Kipling’s poem about his friendship and his tribute to the regimental water boy during battle in the 1890s.

In 1931, the whole concept of this team award was further reinforcement of the founding principle of Comrades — that of camaraderie, team work, and the need to look after and be concerned about others. Many would say these are values that have been lost in today’s race environment, whereas some believe such values can still exist — albeit that they need to be designed to survive the acceptability of modern norms.

In 1931, the trophy was won by the then organising club, the Maritzburg United club, led home by race winner Phil Masterton Smith who had edged Noel Buree from Weenen into second by a mere two metres. Despite the relatively slow time of seven hours, 16 minutes and 30 seconds, 1931 produced the closest race finish in the race’s 11-year history.

From then to the golden jubilee in 1975, the Gunga Din Trophy was shared among nine clubs, with Durban Athletic Club, the oldest club in the country, amassing 16 wins in the 45-year period. Savages, Collegians Harriers, and Germiston Callies were multiple winners. The point is that despite there being considerably fewer clubs, the Gunga Din was a coveted award fiercely contested by the clubs.

By 1960, the competition had become so fierce that the Arthur Newton trophy was provided for the runner-up in the team category.

The same is true of the eighties, where Hillcrest athletes trained hard to make the selected squad of six to eight athletes who by January would be identified to compete for the Gunga Din in the following year’s Comrades. The process was replicated in Johannesburg among Randburg Athletic Club (RAC), Germiston Callies, and the Pretoria-based Magnolia Club. Throughout the country clubs aspired to take on the best of the best to become even the second, third or sixth best team over the infamous Comrades course.

Roll the clock forward 10 or 15 years to the nineties, and that club passion for team recognition has been lost, replaced instead by a two- to three- way duel between the so-called professional or corporate clubs.

Gone are the squads of six or eight members forming a training squad, which has now been replaced by an amalgamation of contracted athletes, “bought” from community clubs. Most corporate teams have used a simple numbers game to secure the team trophy. The trophy is then won by the provincial segment of the club who can enter the greatest number of elite athletes into the race. There are no tactics and strategies, it is every man or woman for himself or herself, and the first four past the post from the same licensing province take the prize.

Debatably, the thin end of the wedge came in the late eighties when Rockie Road Runners became Allied Rockie Road Runners and recruited the three top contenders to their ranks. With Bruce Fordyce, Alan Robb and Frith van der Merwe as their core, it was not long before Rockies became a major contender for individual and team prizes. No one can blame the individuals for their actions, or for wanting to be rewarded for their performances, but this was simply a couple of pen strokes on a cheque from the current situation.

No community or amateur club has won the Gunga Din in recent times. In the last decade, Mr Price teams have won it twice, Harmony twice and the various versions of the Liberty Club six times. However, both Harmony and Liberty clubs have folded and the athletes have simply moved to the next corporate club who will pay them a retainer. In comparison, previous winning clubs such as Durban Athletics, Savages, Hillcrest, and Germiston Callies still continue, but with all their talent skimmed off by the attraction of contracts, it is difficult to be competitive under the rulings.

Although there is no prize money for the team win, these sponsored clubs have in the past gone to extreme, and sometimes illegal lengths, to secure the media mileage associated with the team award. The falsification of athletes’ details and registrations by club managers is but one of the reasons that a number of the team awards were unable to be made on race day in recent years. Instead of epitomising the very best of Comrades virtues, the award has been desecrated by unscrupulous actions.

As opposed to the past, such actions and antics have resulted in a massive loss of interest by the media, and the general and athletic public in the outcome of the team award, and Comrades has lost an extremely valuable asset to the greed of a few.

Perhaps the greatest loss is to the sport. Community clubs simply do not have an equal number of talented athletes, nor the funds to support them for six or eight months of preparation, so they no longer bother to get involved. Gone too is the squad training which any coach worth their salt will tell you is the key to improvement in distance events at any level of ability. Now the country’s elite athletes train on their own, more focused on trying to beat each other than gaining from the benefits of team preparation the way the Kenyans, Ethiopians and other successful nations do both in training and racing.

Even in his leanest and fittest days, Tony Abbott of Hillcrest Villagers team considered himself to be a “fat man” hidden inside a runner’s body simply because of his desire to make the club squad. His point was that not all members of that highly successful team were natural athletes, but the training, the bond and camaraderie forged them into a “fighting” machine that performed above their individual expectations. They were driven to the extra (ordinary) effort, as was witnessed in 1982 when Derrick Tivers crawled over the finish, desperate to get his gold medal and to join Abbot and Graeme Fraser. Errol Ackerman, as fourth man home in 15th position, clinched the Gunga Din ahead of Germiston Callies and the whole of Hillcrest and KwaZulu-Natal celebrated and honoured their heroes.

The loss of such training squads, and the ethos it creates among clubs for training for other shorter events and challenges, can be argued to be a component of the demise in level of performance throughout the sport. Although athletes have gained from the security of contracts, the sport has lost in performance because of the corporate insistence on exposure, and so over-racing, in preference to incentives for performance improvement. In some cases contract fees are even reduced when athletes opt to represent their country as opposed to running a wide range of meaningless races on a weekly basis.

It’s time the sanctity of the Gunga Din was returned, but how can you put both the community club and the professional club on an even footing for a team prize?

“It’s certainly not an easy prospect,” admits Dave Dixon of the Comrades Marathon Association, “But I agree that there is a need for a review of the team award in its current status”.

One proposal is to have clubs nominate a squad of runners for their team, and the first four from that squad would count as their team, the idea being to limit the squad size to something viable for less affluent clubs to provide some support, or find sponsorship, for the preparation of their team. Clubs could field as many teams as they wanted, but each would consist of six to eight or 10 runners, and the first four would count.

“Comrades is a long way and much can go wrong,” says Cheryl Winn, the 1982 down run winner, “so the team size has to be big enough to allow for that, but small enough for clubs to afford”.

When groups of similarly talented athletes train towards a single focused goal, great things can happen. For the first time, one such group from Nedbank, who are certainly not the most talented athletes in the field, have been training in Johannesburg with this vision, and they may well provide the required proof to stimulate the review of one of Comrades’ most potent assets — the Gunga Din Trophy.

Though I’ve belted you and flayed you, By the livin’ Gawd that made you,

You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

norrie williamson

GUNGA DIN Winners last Decade:

 

1999Liberty Life CG

2000Liberty Life CG

2001Liberty Nike AC

2002Harmony Gold GN

2003Liberty Nike CG

2004Harmony Gold GN

2005Liberty Nike GN

2006Liberty Nike GN

2007Mr Price CG

2008Mr Price CG

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