Rise in public interest
Interest in the race continued to rise, at least in part because top South African distance athletes now had so few opportunities to compete abroad. The government had tried to compensate for growing isolation by holding events such as the South African Games, but these essentially consisted of South Africans competing against themselves. There were no purely South African athletics events which could claim international status for their champions – except the Comrades Marathon. It was accepted as one of the greatest races in the world, and for many South Africans, arguably the greatest ultra-marathon of them all. It had the tradition and the legitimacy that had always eluded the artificially created multinational events.
As the talented Johnny Halberstadt neatly pointed out, ‘I’m interested in the Comrades because we can’t go overseas anymore.’ By 1979 there were 586 runners good enough to earn medals, compared with just 80 in 1970. The relatively new blend of political isolation and television technology proved to be extraordinarily potent for the Comrades in the 1980s. Add to the cocktail the chance arrival of the greatest athlete in Comrades history, Bruce Fordyce, and the effect became explosive, as this commemorative blog makes clear. The SABC could draw on world-class technology but its sports producers had relatively little to cover, at a time when the rest of the world was seeing the start of a revolution in commercialised TV sports coverage.
In the eight years after the All Black tour of 1976, there were only three official international series involving the Springbok rugby team: the 1980 British Lions, the 1981 tour of New Zealand and the 1984 two-Test series against England. The next official rugby Test after that was against the All Blacks after readmission in 1992. Cricket had no official internationals at all between 1970 and 1991, although the sporadic rebel tours of the 1980s did help to keep television busy.
While the broadcaster was able to show occasional triumphs overseas by our individual golfers and tennis players, South Africans were involved in most international events only as armchair spectators. We were like children with their noses pressed against the sweet-shop window
Comrades Marathon and television
So the SABC turned to the Comrades with gratitude. Not only was it a genuine world-class event and a national attraction, but it was big. Because it took place over such a huge distance and lasted a whole day, it would involve considerable logistical planning to ensure effective TV coverage. The spare sports capacity of the SABC would be fully employed far in advance of the day itself. There would be great opportunities for training in the specialist fields of camerawork, commentary and editing. This commitment by the national broadcaster helped the Comrades to become the biggest, the best and the most fascinating ultra-marathon challenge in the world. By 1980 the entries topped 4 700 – and to think that the presence of a few hundred had once caused the Natal traffic authorities to consider prohibiting the race. The only comparable event in scale was the Million Dollar Golf tournament at Sun City – but that enjoyed nothing like the popular appeal of the Comrades.
In the 1980s the Comrades became, almost overnight, an integral part of the national sporting and even cultural fabric. Millions of people who had no interest whatsoever in road-running would get up early to watch the televised start in the darkness of Durban or Maritzburg. If it was an up-run, the runners would be relaxed in the mild early-morning weather on the coast. For the start of a down-run, however, there would often be frost on the ground and the exhalations of the nervous runners would be clearly visible in the chill. There would be discussion of the traditional cock-crow – the ebullient Max Trimborn, recorded for posterity, and then a panoramic view of the stampede for position.
The cameras would try to seek out favourites like Fordyce and Robb, but in the first half-hour the producer usually settled for covering the first runner to take the lead. This person seemed invariably to be male and unknown to the commentators. In later years they would discover his identity and club by feeding his race number into the computer. This man would sprint ahead steadily, while the commentators agreed that he could not possibly sustain such a pace. The viewers at home enjoyed this little game, knowing very well that the serious stuff would happen later.
After an hour or so, the early pacesetters would have disappeared and the cameras would begin to pick out the favourites. There were always a few men of moderate ability who made sure that they stuck close, sometimes irritatingly, to the leading woman runner, to bask in the substantial TV coverage she enjoyed.
There was a pleasing intimacy to the commentary, with much runners’ jargon: ‘There goes the Fordyce bus…’ or ‘Of course he’ll be feeling the effect of those shin splints now.’ The TV producers went to ever greater lengths to improve coverage. Helicopters were used to supplement the road vehicles. Previous winners, sitting out this particular race because of injury, were consulted in detail. In addition to computerised identification and route charts, there was due deference to the spirit of the Comrades. Just as it was important to tell us how the leaders were doing, so we were kept in touch with the ‘back-markers’, the poor exhausted souls who were hardly past the halfway mark as Fordyce hurtled towards the finish. At times there was also a ghoulish fascination, well understood by the cameramen, for people who had collapsed, had bleeding feet, were staggering about in a delirious fashion, or making fools of themselves in some way.
The ordinary man’s struggle
As the morning wore on, that Old Road between Durban and Maritzburg began to look very long indeed. But generally what we saw on Comrades day was evidence of a heroic spirit, in thousands of variations. To watch the winner surge into the stadium about half an hour before noon was always an awesomely thrilling moment. But it was no less impressive to watch those trying to make the cut-off points for gold and silver medals. And of course the harshest of moments came after eleven hours, when the man with the gun turned his back on the desperate stragglers and fired into the air at precisely 5 p.m., leaving some poor soul to miss out by a few agonising metres on a medal. Television fed ravenously on such moments.
There were less noble moments. I always wondered why it was necessary to interview people who were in such trouble that they could hardly speak, especially when the question inevitably was: ‘How do you feel?’ And the physical clutter of TV coverage sometimes threatened to obscure the runners, with motorbikes and vans everywhere. Whatever else television achieved for the Comrades, it certainly removed ‘the loneliness of the long-distance runner’ – and with it some of the peace that men seek out on the road. Too often the commentators ran out of things to say and became banal and repetitive.
It also became clear that the popularity of the race had begun to undermine it. Perhaps the entry conditions were not stringent enough, but there were clearly too many runners who were not up to the challenge. Some were obviously not fit enough, others were simply not suited physically to covering 54 miles over several days, let alone eleven hours. To have such people in the race obscured the fact that the Comrades may be accessible to the common man, but that does not mean it is for everyone.
In the end, what really captured the imagination in the 1980s Comrades was the performances and, finally, just the sheer presence of Bruce Fordyce. He did for the Comrades what Edmund Hillary achieved in mountaineering, or Neil Armstrong for space travel. He went where nobody had gone before; like Donald Bradman in cricket or Tiger Woods in golf, he threatened to reshape the parameters of the event to the point where nobody else could compete. He also brought honour of a different kind to the race when he wore a black armband as a political protest. This was a time of State of Emergencies and township violence, when to wear an ANC T-shirt could earn a man a jail term. Very few people could have made such a public statement of opposition to the apartheid government – one of them was Desmond Tutu – and it is a measure of the popular stature of both the Comrades and Fordyce himself that he was able to do it. The silent and dignified message of that armband seemed clear – ‘There is a society beyond this race, and, unlike this race, it is lacking in honour.’