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Thursday, August 09, 2007

The story of Alistair Cragg - an indictment on SA running

In the post directly above this one, I used the example of a runner called Sipho Ngomane to show how SA is losing out on potentially talented runners because of a desire to push runners into marathons and ultras well before their time. So in Sipho Ngomane, we have a 23 year old who was running 2 marathons, 2 Ultras and a half marathon in the space of 6 months. He ended up injured and is likely to never realise his full potential - he should be running 28 min 10km, 61 min half marathons and could have been our next world class marathon runner.

On the other end of the extreme is Alistair Cragg, pictured right. Who, you might ask? Well, if you are South African, you may be interested to know that Alistair Cragg is the fastest South African runner ever at 5000m! Yes, faster than the SA record holder, but unfortunately, he was running for Ireland at the time when he ran 13:11 (the SA record is 13:14!). He has since run 13:07, making him the fastest SA runner by 7 seconds, but he was wearing the wrong singlet at the time!

Cragg was born in Johannesburg in 1980, and was a successful high school runner - he was clearly talented. Yet all through school, he battled a little to make it competitively among SA's juniors. He was good, but nothing suggested "great". I happened to be at school in the same district as Cragg, and so knew his name, and knew many of the local African runners who were beating him regularly at 3000 m and 5000 m at school level. I even watched races where he was outrun by these guys - you'd have put good money on them becoming great athletes and Cragg becoming an average 'trier' one day. How wrong you'd have been!

Invited to leave

I have it on good authority from a coach within the SA structures that it reached a point where Cragg was told that he'd never be quite good enough compared to the runners he was racing against. So with this 'incentivization', combined with the fact that his brother was already in the USA, Cragg decided to leave SA for the USA. I've no doubt that this was a lifestyle decision as well, made in the best interests of his future (in his perception), so he went off to Southern Methodist University in 1999. The rest, as they say, is history.

With the right guidance from coaches in the USA, he became one of the great NCAA runners. He started relatively poorly, but soon picked up and became a dominant runner in the USA. A few blips in the road, a change in universities, but still he excelled and won NCAA titles at 3000m, 5000m, 10000m and at cross country! He would be one of our best ever track runners, but was able to obtain an Irish passport through ancestry, and so soon became an international caliber runner. He finished in 12th place at the Athens Olympic Games - not a single South African could even achieve the Olympic qualifiying to compete, let alone race the final - and has continued to excel. As mentioned, his current 5000 m PB is 13:07, 7 seconds better than any other SA born runner.

So the question we should be asking is how did a guy whose initial talent suggested he'd never really make it go on to be about 20 seconds faster than the next best South African between 2004 and 2007? Sure, he may have been a late developer, and may have achieved this had he stayed in SA, but somehow, I doubt it. Rather, the answer is that the coaches and structures he left behind in South Africa were unable to take talent that was AT LEAST AS GOOD AS HIS and turn it into anything closely similar. Cragg was a success in the USA, but what he left behind in South Africa was a failure of coaching, support and science.

Our coaches and officials invited him to leave, preferring to work with the more 'talented' runners who were beating him at school. Where are they now? Well, I suspect they are either retired and not running anymore, or if they are, they're probably run 2:24 marathons and winning R1000 a weekend in obscure races around the country somewhere.

So well done to Cragg, for making the most of his talent and realising a dream. He's the poster-boy for SA athletics gone wrong...

R & J


bk said...

While Cragg is clearly talented, he is also white.
Why is this important? Well in SAfrican society, a person with means (read white) is given better guidance and has a better shot at leaving for the US than the far more talented black runners who were beating him.

If there was a fair method of selection in SA more black runners would be sent abroad for college and coached running and I have no doubt the SA 5k record would be sub 13min.

Instead all we have coming out of SA are a few excellent marathoners like Ramaala and one or 2 middle distance guys.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Bk

Good point, and I agree that if we had systems in place, more talented black runners would go overseas to receive far better training advice than they get here. However, this too is indicative of a problem with SA - why can't we provide that level of advice and guidance?

Sure, the USA has the best college system in the world and that certainly helps, but if you look at Kenya, Ethiopia, there's no racing "league", yet they produce plenty of great atheltes. So I really believe that if we invested into sport and coaching, we'd manage to produce the likes of Ramaala without even having to send them overseas.

Thanks for the comments!