Cape Town - The team to represent South Africa at the IAU 50km World Championships in Romania on September 1, 2019 was announced shortly after the Comrades Marathon in June this year.
After a long period of sending only men’s teams overseas (or not sending any team at all), last year's 100km World Championship included a women’s team.
Once again, in 2019 a 50km women’s team has been selected. This is noteworthy, but more notable is the apparent bias toward athletes from the Nedbank Running Club managed by Nick Bester - who is also the South African team coach.
While there were many questions asked about exclusions from the men’s team, most of the controversy surrounds the female team.
Also glaringly obvious was the lack of transformation in the women’s team with only one runner of colour, Nedbank’s Ntombesintu Mfunzi, originally named in the team.
Mfunzi has an impressive running resume especially at Two Oceans where she is one of the few black athletes to win a gold medal. However, Mfunzi has been off the pace this year, finishing 20 minutes behind Stephanie Smith at the 50km Bay Ultra and finishing all the back in 42nd place at Comrades.
The two top performing black female athletes in ultra marathons this year - Massmart’s Lizzy Ramadimetja Babili (the only black female athlete to win a gold medal at the Two Oceans) and Enie Manzini (highest placed black female athlete at Comrades and winner of the third largest ultra in the country by field size, the Irene 48km, in 2019), were ignored despite consistently placing ahead of those selected in the team in 2019 ultra races.
Of the 12 team members, seven (3 men, 4 women) are from Nedbank. Despite having several star runners, the Nedbank team's performances have lagged behind other clubs in 2019. The foreign runners they hire to run in their colours do not qualify for team prizes resulting in the Nedbank Elite men’s team finishing fourth (out of five teams) at Comrades while the Nedbank women's team finished as the lowest placed female Elite team (third out of three).
In road running it should be easy to avoid team selection controversy as logic dictates that faster runners are selected ahead of slower athletes.
There would however be some question regarding which races would be considered for selection: Do marathon times count if you’re selecting an ultra running team? Should specific 50km events be the only events considered? Is performance at Two Oceans more important than that in smaller events? Should performance in a longer distance race - like Comrades - count for 50km selection?
It’s not totally straightforward, but the table below (adapted from a post that appeared on social media) shows the leading South African female ultra performances in 2019 and highlights that the fastest athletes have not been selected regardless of the criteria used. Of the team going to Romania, only one athlete, Yolande Maclean, was a top six 50km performer in 2019 (and she was the slowest).
It is assumed that Nedbank runners like Gerda Steyn (focusing on qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Games) and Irvette van Zyl (injured) made themselves unavailable for selection directly to Nick Bester.
ASA was contacted by elite teams before the announcement was made to ask what the criteria for selection were and which races would be used to select the athletes. However, elite team managers never received a reply or even an acknowledgement of their requests.
Sport24 also sent requests to various members of ASA management on July 12 asking for clarity. At time of publishing some 18 days later, no explanation has been received.
After two of the originally selected women withdrew from the team, Murray & Roberts Team Manager Dana Coetzee tried in vain to contact the ASA ‘Team Leader’ George Lamb and other senior ASA officials like James Maloi without any response. Coetzee managed to get hold of Bester to suggest Leilani Scheffer be considered as a replacement, but was told, “It’s too late, I’ve already replaced them.”
Coetzee expressed his frustration with the lack of clarity and fairness.
“No one could tell me what’s happening. There’s no selection criteria and that irritates each one of us. Everyone is up in arms except ASA who say it’s OK.”
Massmart Team Manager, Ann Ashworth, specifically asked that two of her ladies - Babili and Manzini - be considered as replacements, especially since they have faster times and have consistently beaten many of the other selected team members in races this year.
She was told that ASA “would consider her proposal at our next meeting”, but before a meeting was held the two Nedbank replacements were already named.
Team Massmart also made it clear that despite rumours and untruths to the contrary, all the top performing Massmart ladies were explicitly made available for selection. Ironically, the only athlete who is not able to run (for religious reasons as the championships are held on a Sunday) was Katy Van Meter.
Below is a letter sent to ASA on July 7. Massmart also requested clarification on selection criteria in April this year, but have still not received a response.
Both replacement athletes were from Nedbank. One is Tanith Maxwell, a very talented athlete who finished fourth at Comrades in 2018, but she has been injured since then and has not raced competitively for over a year.
The other is Fikile Mbuthuma, once again a talented athlete, but she has been injured for most of 2019, had her worst Comrades in six years this year and finished all the way down the field in 41st position at Two Oceans.
There was no formal announcement on the ASA website, but the new team was announced on the Twitter profile of Bester.
The inference is that team selection is at the sole discretion of Bester and that the two selection criteria are either being a Nedbank athlete or keeping in Bester’s good books (if you’re not a Nedbank athlete). There are certain female athletes who refuse to be part of a team coached or managed by Bester because of past conflicts. Requiring female athletes to be on friendly terms with the male head coach is a recipe for future scandal.
Questions are also being asked behind the scenes as to Bester’s true motive for coaching the South African team - with off-the-record suggestions being made he uses the opportunity to recruit foreign elite athletes to run in Nedbank colours at Comrades and Two Oceans.
Even for the non-Nedbank team members there has been some controversy with slower runners being selected ahead of faster ones.
Yolande Maclean (whose name was misspelt on the team announcement as “Yolande Mc Cleare”) and Salome Cooper have far slower recent 50-56km times than many other athletes within the Murray and Roberts team like Scheffer, Kerry-Ann Marshall and Rene Kalmer.
Maclean, who missed out on a gold medal for the first time in nine starts, was the slowest of the winning Murray and Roberts Elite Women’s team at Comrades and the 43-year-old Cooper did not feature in the team prize.
As with anything involving ASA, confusion reigns. While other sporting codes embrace the professional era, Athletics South Africa remains firmly grounded in their amateur roots.
With no transparency, no criteria and no accountability from within the ASA leadership structure, one can hardly blame Bester from capitalising on the situation. South Africa is fortunate to have a wealth of ultra talent to choose from and the selected athletes will no doubt perform well.
On September 1 we’ll see how well 'Team Bester' does. Unfortunately, it appears we’ll never know how the Best Team would've performed...