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Thursday, August 09, 2007

South Africa's long distance failure - what should be done?

In two previous posts, we have looked at how the marathon distance has been redefined by the cross-over of a group of speed merchants from the track, and then be the increased emphasis on the speed that is fundamental to success, even over the marathon distance.

And I was bemoaning the fact that South African men, with the exception of Hendrik Ramala, appear to be slipping gradually off the face of the world road-running map. So this is a somewhat "patriotic" post, dealing with a South African problem, but I'm very sure it's not exclusive to SA, and that where ever in the world you are reading this, you will be able to relate in some form.

So here's the problem - in the last three or four years, South Africa's best male marathon runners are slower than the best women in the world. And I do not mean this in a chauvanistic manner at all, but I use this fact to illustrate that a once proud marathon nation (Olympic Champion in Josia Thugwane, three or four marathon runners in the top 10 every year, New York Champion, one of the most consistent marathon runners in history in Gert Thys), have fallen badly off the bus. Most South Africa men are now only suitable to run as pacemakers in second string races overseas, and there is only really one remaining ambassador for our marathon heritage - Hendrik Ramala.

On the track, the situation is not much better. How bad? Well, our national 5000 m record is SLOWER than the world record pace for the 10000m - 13:14 for the SA record, Bekele's average split in his 10km WR is 13:09 (and you know the second half is faster!). I realise this might be the case in many countries, but South Africa could (and should) be producing competitive runners - we've shown the capabilities to race against the East Africans, and we really should still be up there. It's not for a lack of talent, as I'll illustrate later.

And sadly, the case among the women is not much better. A women's time of 34 minutes over 10km is hailed as a breakthrough in SA, and would win almost all the local races. We have become a nation that celebrates mediocrity.

The problem is, as referred to in a previous post, we almost encourage mediocrity. As soon as a talented female runs 34 minutes (usually they are about 16 years old and have been running for 6 months, such is the level of talent we have), she is encouraged to move up to 21km, and not long after, the marathon. As a result, she runs a mediocre marathon, perhaps 2h45, and wins some prize money there. Next year, as soon as the next 16 year old arrives on the scence, she's replaced and fades into obscurity. The lucky ones remain mediocre, running 34 minutes for the rest of their careers.

The case of Sipho Ngomane: How talent is killed in SA

Take the case of Sipho Ngomane (shown left), for example. Here is a guy who at the age of 21, ran a 63 minute half marathon. He was 'identified' as talented by Harmony Running Club (a big club in SA) and in the year he was 23 (2005), he had the following racing schedule:

Feb - SA Marathon Champs 42 km, finished 2nd
March - Mpumulanga Marathon Champs, finished 1st
March - Two Oceans Ultra-Marathon 56km, finished 2nd
June - Comrades Ultra-Marathon 90km, finished 1st
July - South African Half Marathon champs, position unknown

So between Feb and July, in the space of six months, a 23 year old with speed to run 63 minutes or faster ended up racing 2 marathons, 2 ultra marathons and a half marathon! What a waste of talent! And the sad thing is that people still claim he is a force on the SA road running scence. This is an athlete who, aged 25 (currently), should be racing in New York against Haile G and co., running 61 minutes or faster for the 21km distance. By about 2010, when he is 28, shift him up to the marathon, where he would run sub-2:08 quite comfortably with the right guidance, and perhaps by about 2016, when he is 34 years old, he's the guy to win the Comrades in a record time.

Instead, he spent 2006 injured (no wonder, considering what he did in 2005) and then in 2007, has been running mediocre (around 2:18 to 2:20) marathons, but came top 10 in both Two Oceans and Comrades and so everyone celebrates. And a certain Harmony Gold manager claims a nice bonus as commission on prize money!

The administrative problem

I hope this frustrates you - it certainly bothers me to see a guy who clearly has immense talent being relegated to racing for scraps over ultra-marathons, while SA sits and watches its history erode. And the solution is simple - prevent these guys from racing ultras like this. Stop the greedy agents from exploiting talent (the only reason they can exploit this talent, by the way, is that there is so much around - the reason no one cares about Sipho Ngomane is because there is another athlete just like him to take his place in 2007, and there will be another in 2008) and start getting qualified coaches and managers to guide these guys to better times.

If this seems obvious to you, then consider with disbelief what Athletics South Africa did (they are the governing federation for running in SA). They signed a sponsorship worth R85 million over 6 years to create a marathon and 20km racing league across South Africa. So instead of preventing over-racing, they encourage it, by putting even more money at the top end. The money drives the agents and it entices the athletes to abandon track and cross country, neglect their speed foundation and race over 90km instead.

And of course, there are factors at play here other than simple science and common sense - I know the business of sport - but that money, even R2 million of it - could have been used to identify the best athletes over 5km and 10km, and then instead of ploughing it into letting them race over shorter distances, set up a structure where they are paid NOT to race, except at strategic times decided on by a coach. This would ensure that young talent is given every opportunity to succeed, and in the long term, the prospects of $50 000 prize money at a Half-marathon in New York would make the return on this investment well worth it for the athlete.

But administrators, agents and "coaches" are bleeding the life out of talented SA runners, and until this stops, I'm afraid Hendrik Ramala is destined to be the last great SA runner...

The interesting thing to finish off is that a similar thing is happening in Kenya, where agents and scouts descend like vultures and pick up the talent. Kenya, more than any other nation, seems to have an inexhaustible supply of running talent. But unfortunately, it's heading the way of SA, and that's something we'll look at in a future post, with the World Champs coming up.

See you soon!
R & J


Andrew said...

Scary stuff this. What are the chances of getting a "rebel" 5km & 10km league, get some alternative sponsors, and go from there. I don't know, just an idea, but something has to be done, like you say.