Comrades Marathon – A historic perspective

By David Williams
Originally published in Comrades Highlights and Heroes 1921 to 1999

The trouble with great traditions is that it’s very difficult to think your way back to the time when they began. When we look back at the Second World War, for instance, it somehow seems inevitable that the Allies would win. But it certainly didn’t seem like that at the time to the British, especially in those dark, lonely days between 1939 and November 1941, when the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese brought the United States into the war.

Let’s go back even further. When the first Comrades Marathon was run in 1921, the race was not seen – could not have been seen – as the forerunner of the great event it has become. Vic Clapham’s vision was surely not the conscious start of a tradition, rather the expression of a value. He and men like him, none of them especially artistic or intellectual, wanted to remember their fallen comrades of the First World War, the Great War as it was known at the time.

They who had survived

They must have had an enormous sense of relief at having survived. Yet they also felt sadness at the losses that touched so many families, even in South Africa – and guilt, however deeply packed away, because they came back home and their friends did not.

Dellville Wood

To the modern sensibility, the scale of damage in that ‘great’ war is difficult to comprehend. In the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, the British army experienced 60 000 casualties on the first day alone. At Passchendaele, it was later estimated, a million lives were lost on both sides for a yard of ground gained. At Delville Wood in France, South African soldiers made their greatest sacrifice of the war 3 000 men went into battle there and only 300 came out unscathed. And this was the result of the fighting on a single day, largely unnoticed beyond that particular sector of the front, because comparable losses were continually being sustained elsewhere. Delville Wood, scar that it is in the South African military psyche, is a mere footnote in the history of that war.

A generation later, the murderous policies of Hitler and Stalin would wipe out millions of innocent people. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed within a few seconds when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Later came the efficient use of massacre as state policy by despots such as Mao Tse-Tsung in China, Pol Pot in Cambodia’s killing fields and Idi Amin in Uganda. Death on such a scale numbs the brain, but it was unthought-of of in the 1920s, when the slaughter in the trenches was more than the imagination could stand.

A dignified expression of remembrance

So the foundation of the road race between Durban and Maritzburg was about remembrance, about healing, about ordinary men wanting to give dignified expression to something too big to say in words. But if the gesture was to mean anything, it needed to represent a real challenge, even a degree of suffering. It could not be too easily performed, because that would devalue the sacrifice of the old soldiers. And, like an emblem of war, it would have to be a challenge that ordinary men could attempt, but not necessarily succeed at, unless they had guts, determination and character. In short, men wanting to make a genuine gesture of remembrance had to prove themselves worthy of their dead.

Vic Clapham found a dignified way to remember

In the early 1920s, when the horse and the train were the most common forms of popular transport, the distance between Durban and Maritzburg must have seemed huge. There was no tarred road. The railway journey, along harsh gradients on a line laid out by Victorian surveyors, took many hours. To cover the 54 miles or 90 kilometres on foot in one day is a challenge not lightly undertaken in the year 2000; in 1921 it must have seemed awesome, even frightening – and therefore sufficiently testing a challenge for the purpose.

Partly by instinct, then, and partly by design, the founders of the Comrades Marathon created something of great value. It was consciously a race for the ordinary man, not the athlete – the infantryman, not the officer. It is striking, when one reads of the occupations of those early contestants, how many were artisans rather than members of the so-called professions such as law and medicine.

Other great sporting events of the modern age – rugby and cricket Tests, the Olympics, Wimbledon, the major golf tournaments – all had their roots in the need of the upper and middle classes for recreation, and in particular the Victorian desire to organise and codify that recreation. The purpose of the Comrades, by contrast, was both more serious and more democratic.

The origins of the Comrades are even more interesting and unusual when you realise that, in the 1920s, the ethos of the South African white sporting classes (as in the United States) closely reflected the British class system. In English cricket there was a clear and official distinction between Gentlemen – wealthy amateurs, often aristocratic, and Players – working-class professionals. They would often take the field by separate entrances at many county grounds.

The annual fixture at Lord’s between Gentlemen and Players was to survive until the early 1960s, so in 1920 this cricketing ‘apartheid’ must have seemed as natural and enduring as the British Empire itself.

A culture of amateurism

In Rugby Union a man would be instantly banned for life if it was found that he had been paid to play. The Olympic amateur code was no less ruthless, as is shown by the sad case of the Native American Jim Thorpe. At the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Thorpe won the gold medal in both the pentathlon and decathlon and is still regarded as one of the greatest all-round athletes in history, yet he was stripped of his medals because it was discovered that he had once accepted a small fee for playing minor-league baseball. If such attitudes seem quaint and old-fashioned, we must remember that professional tennis players were allowed into Wimbledon for the first time only in 1968 – and that Rugby Union relaxed its laws on amateurism only after the 1995 World Cup.

In other ways the sporting environment of the early 1920s was far closer to the Victorian era than it is to us. There was no television and even the first radio sports broadcast was several years away if you wanted to experience the drama of sport, you had to be there. In 1922, when Gene Tunney fought Jack Dempsey twice for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, they attracted crowds in excess of 100 000 in Chicago and Philadelphia. In Johannesburg, the City Hall was frequently packed with fight fans who eagerly followed the Friday night programmes involving boxers from the surrounding mines.

Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey

People’s sporting horizons were much narrower then. In 1921, when the rugby Springboks toured New Zealand and played against the All Blacks for the first time, the contests aroused little interest back home in South Africa. On the morning of the decisive third Test, with the inaugural series standing at one-all, the Johannesburg newspapers were dominated by club rugby previews, an inter-school athletics meeting and a Cornish wrestling tournament in Krugersdorp. News was so slow, it resembled history. The centre of sporting interest was the club, because its activities were immediate and accessible to the local community.

Next – Part 2

Published by Tom Cottrell

A struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.

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