The violence of Athletics South Africa

2018-11-26 11:28
Picture: Anesh Debiky/Gallo Images

Picture: Anesh Debiky/Gallo Images

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WATCH: Firefighters run Soweto Marathon in 18kg gear to honour fallen colleagues

2018-11-05 13:23

Three Johannesburg firefighters have run the Old Mutual Soweto Marathon in bunker gear to commemorate their colleagues who died while fighting a fire in a Johannesburg building. Watch. WATCH

On Sunday, November 4, I almost finished the Soweto Marathon. Almost, because 200 meters before reaching the finish mat in the FNB stadium, along with many other runners, I was prevented from entering the stadium.

The crime that led to my disqualification was that I wore only one of my Athletics South Africa (ASA) bibs instead of both. After 42km of running, and with the calabash's shadow finally shielding us from the sun, we could not cross the finish line.

When a man wearing an orange reflector jacket stood in my way, I was taken off guard because in those last meters, every second counts and I had two minutes to cover the remaining distance. In that moment, making it to the finishing mat before 3:40 was important for realising the seeding target I needed to enter the Comrades and Two Oceans ultra marathons in the New Year.

When the referee that had now blocked my path explained that he was disqualifying me because I was not wearing my ASA license, I showed him the license pinned to my back. He responded that I should be wearing both bibs and proceeded to rip off the Soweto Marathon bib with no regard for the pins and how they could potentially pierce my flesh or tear my running shirt.

A woman in the audience laughed. The disqualified runners were her entertainment and the menacing violence of the referees brought joy to her.

The weather was good for running the Soweto Marathon. It is traditionally a difficult marathon because November is usually very hot. And Soweto is typically hotter than most running routes because it has fewer trees to shield runners.

Also, in its poorer days, the Soweto Marathon generally ran out of water. I have run the race about seven times. After running the race in 3:27 one year, I remember lying under a tree totally dehydrated and fatigued. I do not recall how I eventually got home.

I loved this crazy race. Coming at the end of the year when many runners are not marathon fit, the Soweto Marathon used to be seen as the race of the foolhardy or the brave. And there is the small detail of some people not finding their cars where they had left them. For all these reasons, the "people's race" was not quite the most popular race.

However, since the upsurge in the running culture where all races are filled to capacity within days or hours of being opened for registration, race organisers and ASA have grown in self-importance and arrogance. These are foreign elements to those of us that have been running for a long time.

We run for different reasons. To be alone on the road, to activate the endorphins stimulated by running, to get away from our demons, to prove something to ourselves (and perhaps those that teased or shamed us for our bodies), for health, for companionship. But because we have been told that we need regulation, we have oversight bodies where self-interested men (usually) create rules to govern how we run.

The rules that determine how we run often do not cohere with the reasons that we run. The spirit of the Soweto Marathon – what was once "the people's race", has been taken over by the big men and their propensity for violence to uphold rules that have nothing to do with the pleasure of running. The people's race is no more.

Even the president made a 5km cameo. Now that the Soweto Marathon is flush with sponsor money and interested runners, its arrogance swells higher than the Orlando towers.

After two minutes of being detained on the track, I watched my running watch hit the 3:40 mark and realised that I would not finish the race. Two runners that were pulled out of the race just before I was, began to protest their discontent by arguing that the single license bib was evidence of the payment of the 2018 license fees.

I saw five referees in bright orange jackets advance on the unhappy runners with menacing intent meant to intimidate them with violence. Realising that our case was moot and in no mood for violence, I ambled off the track and went in search of my brother-in-law, so we could wait together for my sister who had travelled from Pietermaritzburg to run the race.

Refereeing is not an exact science. We watched as many people with a single license or none at all, staggered out of the stadium with medals bouncing on their chests. My unlucky day perhaps. But sitting and waiting for my sister, I wondered if this had been my last Soweto Marathon.

After being manhandled and facing the threat of further violence, I have lost any sense of loyalty I once had for this race. Even though the culprits are Athletics South Africa, my experience was in Soweto. With the popularity of road running occasioned by the corporate inspired Vitality craze, no one will miss my presence. But I have walked away from violence before and the hooligans at ASA will not have the satisfaction of beating up my black ass.

A case of sour grapes?

"But the law is the law". No one among my friends quite said this when I told them the story, but I read it in their responses. "Just wear both bibs."

Like the next person, I appreciate rules for the structure that they bring to unproductive ambiguity. But I always see rules as rough guidelines to help people navigate through complex terrain. I never see them as a law to be blindly observed.

I work as an academic. We deal with large numbers and guidelines assist us in moving in a particular direction. But regularly, students do not follow the rules. We talk in order to understand intent and context. Assignments are not submitted because there was no electricity or money, someone died and another was sick. Some of this is not true, but to move in the general direction of learning, we interpret each case and keep moving.

And so, if a student does not submit a turnitin report so that I can assess the work for plagiarism, I ask them to give me a report even after the fact of submission. This is because I recognise that they have done the work and the provision of a report is just an additional administrative hurdle to make sure that the work belongs to the student.

Likewise in running. I had completed the race. All of those that were disqualified had legitimately run. The electronic running mats had picked us up at each of the four places across Soweto. Our licenses were the point of contention. If this were at my place of work where reason (mostly) trumps bureaucratic dictates and violence, one would easily solve the problem.

Upon realising that we had worn one bib and not two, we should be allowed to proceed because one bib is evidence of registration. But to be sure, officials should take our ASA numbers to verify our registration and retrospectively disqualify us if we were not indeed registered for the year.

The Comrades Marathon and Two Oceans Marathon do this all the time by verifying registration prior to the race. This is what computers are there for. But big man posturing and violence is more satisfying than simple reason.  

And so, when people who had seen me on the winding route through Soweto wondered why they had not seen me at the end of the race at the stadium, I had to tell them that I was disqualified.

The absence of a medal does not bother me. I seldom look into the dark drawer that I throw medals into after completing a race. I am not too bothered that disqualification means that I have not qualified for Oceans and Comrades.

There are tons of races in early 2019 that can be used for qualifying. I am pissed off at the threat of violence in a sport that I have come to associate with camaraderie, fellowship, and when the going gets tough on a steep unforgiving hill – even selflessness.

I am angry that officials, who are clearly not runners, threaten the joy of running.

Read more on:    athletics sa  |  soweto marathon  |  soweto  |  running  |  athletics

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