Opposition parties in the African National Congress-led Msunduzi council have questioned the wisdom behind forking out thousands of rands on American athletes for the opening of the Msunduzi Athletics Track.
The International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) approved track will be officially opened on August 25, the day before the Mandela Marathon in Pietermaritzburg.
The track launch was one of the discussion points at a council sitting on Monday. While all councillors warmly welcomed the launch, it was the invitation of American athletes Justin Gatlin, Inika McPherson and Christian Coleman as celebrity guests that has angered councillors. The municipality is set to invite a total of 20 guests at a cost of R2 million.
“Well, the stadium is just about the only thing good to talk about in this city because even our renowned city clock is not working,” said Democratic Alliance councillor Bill Lambert.
ANC councillor Thamsanqa Sithole said everyone should applaud the opening of the track, as it marked a significant chapter in the history of Pietermaritzburg.
“This is a chance for the city to develop athletes who can earn a living through their abilities, and we all know that in order to make money one has got to pay money,” said the councillor in justifying paying the American celebrity athletes.
Senior municipal official Mandla Zuma they were hoping to make a huge impact and raise the city’s profile as a premier sports venue, and this had prompted the invite to the American athletes, including former 100 metres champion Gatlin, who has also made international headlines after being banned for doping.
“We have been saying that we want to project ourselves as a sporting capital and the launch of the track, taking place just a day before the Mandela Marathon, will provide focus and media attention to our city,” said Zuma.
Opposition party councillors, however, questioned the timing of the tabling of the report and use of athletes from outside South Africa and the continent to headline the launch.
“But in this country, we have got Olympic gold medallists in Caster Semenya and Wayde van Niekerk and other athletes, why are we paying so much money to celebrity athletes?” asked DA councillor Clive Aitkens.
While Zuma said Gatlin was a superb sprinter who had beaten the legendary Usain Bolt, Aitkens questioned the value added by the sprinter. “Gatlin was banned for doping, and yet we are paying this amount of money for him.”
Gaitlin was banned between 2006 and 2010 from competing by the US Athletics Drug Administration, while McPherson was banned for 21 months after testing positive for cocaine.
ANC councillors insisted that the launch was important for Pietermaritzburg, and would place it on a good footing as a premier sporting destination.