Columns 13.6.2018 08:30 am

Please don’t re-racialise the great Comrades race

Photo: Gallo Images.

Photo: Gallo Images.

Know-it-alls interpret the experience of others to suit their prejudices. Social media provide examples.

Timothy Leary (1920-1996) said that talking about LSD to people who haven’t used the drug is like talking to nuns about sex. Should we say something similar about people who haven’t run the Comrades Marathon?

What’s it like? How can they know if they haven’t experienced it? Leary, the high priest of psychedelia, spoke with authority about LSD. But his put-down did not prevent anyone from expressing opinions about the effects. Nor should it have done so.

Lack of experience is no handicap. Know-it-alls interpret the experience of others to suit their prejudices. Social media provide examples.

Consider the Comrades Marathon, where experts outnumber those who have participated. One tweep opined: “It’s disgraceful that 1st prize in #Comrades2018 is a mere R440k! It takes enormous sacrifice worth a lot more than that for these athletes to prepare for the race. If top 10 was dominated by white runners there’d be a lot more money pumped into it. #R1Million”.

Actually the prize money is more than R440 000, especially for a South African winner, where another R200 000 is added. There are also sponsorships and endorsements. Comrades winners routinely pocket over R1 million.

A more damaging falsehood is the accusation that prize money would be higher if winners were white. In fact, in the days when the Comrades was misguidedly racially exclusive, there was no prize money at all. Nix.

One Comrades legend, five-time winner Wally Hayward, was banned from all competition for 20 years because he accepted a small donation towards his travel expenses while competing in the UK.

Long after Gabeshane Vincent Rakabaele became the first official black Comrades finisher (20th position) in 1975, there was still no prize money. Bruce Fordyce, who won nine times between 1981 and 1990, received no prize money.

Cash rewards were introduced in 1995. Since then, the Comrades has been won only twice by white South Africans, nine times by pale foreigners and 13 times by black Africans.

So the notion of money being pumped in to support white winners is misguided. And the anti-social media attempt to re-racialise the Comrades Marathon is unfortunate.

For decades, the Comrades has been a great leveller. Hundreds of thousands of spectators line the route, or watch TV, in a glorious celebration of shared humanity. Triumph blurs tragedy, and camaraderie mingles with the loneliness of the long-distance runner.

It’s not only about the winners. Whether or not the offending tweep has run the distance between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, the tweet is ill-informed. Yet the ill-informed are entitled to their opinions, even if Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) warned: “There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.”

It is indeed frightful to observe ignorance on parade when it touches you on your studio. I have followed the race closely since before it was first televised. When writing about the Comrades for newspapers and magazines, I interviewed heroes of all races, including Wally Hayward.

After travelling to and from the Comrades by plane, train, bus, car or bicycle, and completing the race 23 times, I cherish a lifetime of memories where skin colour is immaterial.

Please don’t re-racialise this amazing race.

DA city of Joburg councillor Martin Williams.

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