News & Views

ULTRA RUNNING THE OTHER SIDE OF A COIN:


The events and statements flying around on social media, and more recently in the formal press, concerning the selection of a South African team to the World 100km in Croatia have certainly aroused interest.

As with every debate there are always at least two sides, and more probably a bagful, of views on comments, actions, and the side bar comments of the situation.

As a past athlete to IAU European and World Events: Team Manager for both GBR & NI, and ASA between 1993 and 2000, and part of a group promoting ultra in their founding years from 1984, it is my hope to give some perspective on Ultra Running, and recent comments on the ASA team selection in a balanced format.

ULTRA RUNNING IS A MINORITY SPORT – TRUTH:

The sport for distances 48km to 90km is massive in South Africa, and attracts the largest portion of sponsorship and funding in RSA athletics.
If one excludes schools then it may have the greatest number of club participants.
However in real world terms ultra-running is small
Even assuming each international runner coming to SA for an ultramarathon, ran only one event – the total number is around 5000.

By comparison it’s a drop in the ocean when many of the major marathons in the world attract over 25% of their field from outside the host country (50,000 finishers in NY = 12500 foreign runner as example)

In South Africa the interest in ultra-running reduces dramatically after 90km – in MANY countries in the world ultra-running is only considered to begin at 100k and upwards to perhaps the Sri Chimony 3000 mile race

The point is that while Comrades may get massive coverage in the public here in SA, the reality is that it would be surprising if it got more than a side mention in sports section in the rest of the world.

Even the World 100km championships attract only 35 countries, but at least then it is the best the country can send.
There is probably a greater worldwide (media) audience for the world championships than Comrades.

Compare that to the viewing figures and interest in the Diamond League of 14 events, the World Challenge, London’s World Cup (where South Africa has developed to be one of the 8 teams based on their world championship results), and even Olympic, world championships, continental track and field events ….

In 2017 282 million people from 162 countries watched the Diamond league .. This year it is streamed and the social media coverage and interaction adds to that

How can any federation place an emphasis of funding on a minority discipline, which primarily caters for adult competitors, when the sustained identification of talent from 16 to 20 year old athletes is key to the future of the sport?

WHAT IS SUPPORT FOR ROAD RUNNING?

It is claimed that ASA is not supporting Road Runners.
It is not clear how this is being validated as a statement:

Teams / individuals are selected sent to:
• World Half Marathon Championships
• The Marathon events such as Olympic, World championships, Africa etc when they qualify.
• The world 100km championships

It is of course every individuals right to accept or turn down the honour of going to represent their country and this right needs to be respected as the individuals choice.

However this is different from saying that road runners are not supported:

ASA has virtually every year, (except perhaps when they were on the brink of being declared insolvent), held in some format: 10km, (15km in previous years), 21km and full marathon championships.

That is not to say their promotion or event organisation was ideal or ideally placed on the fixture list, but the support to have these, the selection of the teams, and the funding of that team has always been in place to the level that finance allowed.

It is true that world 100km has been a moving target over the years, with a lull in the early 2000’s where it was felt that the available funding needed to be put into development of younger people, rather than the ultra-runners, and so the focus was in more on XC and Road up to marathon, and always on track and field.

The fact is that in South Africa road running has always been acknowledged as the back bone of the club structure in the country, (more so than track and field), but in world terms and throughout the world’s federations this is completely the reverse.

By example the world half marathon attracted just under 300 runners from 80 countries, but was broadcast this year in 5 continents, plus live streaming and social media channels.

Out of all road runners, in world terms, ultra-running is the smallest segment of society.
By contrast in South Africa the focus on Comrades and its “training runs” Two Oceans, (then the other 48km to 60km events’) have taken the focus of sponsors, participants, and hence media.

The advent of ‘commercial’ clubs saw this focus increase even further.

The situation is that a disproportionate focus of runners, media and commerce is put to these short ultra-distances, at the expense of the world-wide trend for road events from 10km to the marathon.
South African (short) ULTRA runners have been provided more exposure than anywhere else in the world, and totally disproportionate to their standing any other place in the world.

This gives a very broad overview of the differences between road running in RSA and the rest of the world where in fact it is the exception that one has to be a member of a club in order to compete in a race, up to marathon and even ultra-distances.

It would seem then that the call for support, may actually simply be a call for money.

The natural progression of a young athlete is:
• School introduction to the sport and basic skills (athletics covers the very basic alphabet of skills – run jump throw)
• XC provides running speed and endurance, (plus strength)
• Now into Track and field and if an endurance athlete move from 800 to 1500 to 5000 to 10,000 and then the intro to road
• Road 10k and XC lead into 15k, 21k and marathon…. With ultra distance currently the progression for those not fast enough, or no longer fast enough, to make their mark at marathon.

Surely if we are talking development and support this is primarily done as low down the above ladder as possible? Surely financial support is primarily needed for your and my kids and the youth who don’t have the income?

If we are looking for support at road running then presumably it should be in the support structures, such as development and training Technical officials, coaches and club administration?

The support of the athletes surely comes with the youngsters – particularly as it is an indisputable fact that the faster you are over 5km the faster your potential will be as an ultra-runner.

FUNDING

The suggestion is being made that because there are more road runners contributing to the membership / license fees the greatest percentage of money should be spent on road running.

However, to compare the license fees for a year to the support of athletes is failure to appreciate the costs:

In round figures ASA has 100,000 athletes (including juniors) at R100 – that’s an income of R10 million:
Even if 100% of that money went direct to ASA, and even if they only had staff salaries, office overheads, and the hosting of council meetings, Board meetings, and some travel to / from the 19 provinces how much of that would be left?

The African Championships, the World under 20 team, the World Cup, the Walking Teams, the XC teams, and yes the ultra-team all cut into the costs

The % (15 in KZNA) of race entry goes to the province – making KZNA and WPA in terms of Oceans and Comrades the beneficiary.
There are around 1000 races in the country and this tends to fund the province particularly where they do not have other sources of income such as club membership fee, and sponsors.

The real income is from Sponsorship, TV rights, and marketing.


PRIZE MONEY / SUPPORT IS DETERMINED BY CREDIBILITY AND APPEAL:

The fact is that athletics is NOT a rich sport: not in comparison to Formula 1, Tennis, Golf, Football, or even American football which has culturally grown an audience of over 300 million in one country.
Rugby, Soccer, Cricket, horse racing and even international sports dominate the South African media / sponsorship circle –
It is this media / participation and spectatorship / sponsorship that drives the economics of a sport:

It is not simply Athletics or road runners who find they have to contribute to costs of the sport – any of the smaller sports (swimming, rowing, and many others have as great or greater challenges for the same reasons)


ATHLETE CREDIBILITY GIVES SPORT CREDIBILITY:

The sport’s economic viability can be fuelled and grown by credibility of the administration and the credibility / charisma of the people in the sport.

Bruce Fordyce had that effect on Comrades in the 1980’s followed by Frith, and Willie Mtolo – few have replicated that, and those who have or are now include – Caster Semenya, Wayde van Niekerk, Luvo and Ruswahl, Sunette Viljoen and now Bongmusa
(There are others of course at differing levels)

Compare this relative to the number of Rugby, Cricket and soccer stars / ambassadors: What they say – how they act – their adherence to rules on the pitch all impacts on the sport credibility and value.

Of course, there was a 15 or so year period when ASA had totally lost its place administratively, and while there are many (many?) aspects that we may not agree with, the fact is that they are currently better and improving – albeit this has to a good extent been driven by the athletes and the success they have brought.

Of course the reverse is also true.
Both the athletes and administration approach and public interactions, can adversely affect the credibility of the sport, the country, the federation, their club, a race and of course their own marketing ability.

Adverse effects are seen and impact at the highest level:
How many foreign runners will come to compete or recreationally run in a country, or how sponsors perceive a sport and their willingness to invest in the federation, or the event, or a club.
These are considerations that need to be taken in viewing both sides of the coin.

ROAD RUNNING (TRAIL RUNNING AND MASS PARTICIPATION) HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY

Yes the road runners provide a direct contribution to the income, (quite significant compared to track field or any other discipline) but the majority are adults.
It will always be the case that, in sport as in life (think basic tax), adults have to contribute to the costs of developing children and youth.

If we follow the reasoning that those who put in the most should get the most back – then its time the 80% of mass runners were supported to go overseas.

The Elite in any race in this country account for only around 100 people and in the whole country there are about 2000 runners who compete for prize money. (including age group)
It is already the mass who support the elite in these road races, even to the point of mass entry fees covering the elite prize-money.

Such proportional thinking (of money in = money out) is erroneous in sport, as in a society, where we have such a high % of unemployment and 47% living under a decent living wage…. That is why tax payers give to assist those who cant.

By the time most runners graduate to the mass participation of the sport, they have made their mark in the work place sufficient to make a contribution to those less able.

IF ITS ABOUT MONEY – COMPETE IN A MONEY SPORT:

We each choose our sport: It’s not forced on us.

Success to most is about challenging themselves to be better than the other competitors in the same sport: it’s a personal choice and personal journey.

If we are lucky the rewards can also be tangible and contribute to our living standards, but for a far greater number of sports than those media popular ones, success is an internal achievement.

The truly great are also able to turn that success into a living by what they do, their attitude and charisma off the field of play.
The likes of Fordyce who has generated (what would today be millions) a healthy income in a period of amateurism.
His ability to speak, to provide commentary and leadership opinion on the sport, and his ability to entertain, gave him the income that others expect to come without effort.

Those who expect the rewards of professional Tennis, Formula one, Rugby, Soccer or even Track and Field – need to compete in those sports if it is the money that is important.

Yes money is available in road racing – I have just been at events where a winner will walk away with between US$5000 and 26000 for winning a 10km race, but we need to be clear these are people who rank in the top 100 in the world in which Millions will watch the TV or live streaming of events and have sponsors who make impact and gain return from that sort of investment.

With a true purchasing population of under 30 million, South African ultra-runners have done well to have two opportunities a year to create an income in excess of R400,000 for a win (plus bonus and incentives, plus speaking / appearance etc which can easily double / triple that)

Just over a week ago, THE (or certainly the one with the greatest racing longevity) world’s greatest ultra-runner Don Ritchie passed away.
He ran his first record in 1977 and his last representation for his country in 2001 age 57!!!
His track 100km of 6:10 in 1977 was only just broken recently – yet his greatest prize money was probably never in excess of £500 (R8500) ….

Don’t expect any significant money for winning the world championships and certainly anything paid will not be the depth of the Comrades or Two Oceans.
The ultra-runners in those countries competing in the World 100k, live in the ‘real world’ and understand they are a minority discipline in athletics.

They do it to challenge themselves, they do it at their cost and they do it for the honour of representing their country.

They don’t have clubs providing retainers, or training stipends.. for the majority it’s about self-sacrifice.
If they wanted money they would have selected a different sport.

In short South African ultra-runners – or at least the Comrades and Two oceans contenders – are privileged that the evolution of our isolation years resulted in our focus on Comrades (as opposed to a big city marathon ) as the greatest local challenge.
This pulled numbers, sponsors, media to an event that in any other country would have died (as did the London to Brighton), and has provided massive prize money to a few of what the world believes, and typically refers to, as the ‘lunatic fringe’

BRANDING / ADVERTISING ON VESTS: – It’s a South African bonus, but illegal in the rest of the world.

Claims are being made that ASA in 2017 purposely changed rules on the advertising /branding on vests to prevent the corporate clubs from earning money from sponsors.

This at best, is mis-information on a number of levels:

The rules in question are IAAF Advertising rules and regulations, which have been in force for at least 20 years, and apply to all South African runners competing in an International event as classified in rule 1 of the IAAF Rule book.

The branding on South African club vests is a relaxation which was applied in the 1990’s for all South African clubs, but only for domestic competition:

A numbers of truly international events, as defined in IAAF rule 1, have been established in South Africa over the recent couple of years.

These include: Sanlaam Cape Town Marathon, FNB City Series in Cape Town, Durban and Comrades and Two Oceans, who gain their status primarily on the basis of international runners and having prize money above a threshold set in the IAAF rules.

It therefore became necessary for ASA to implement the rules, For competitive runners.
When ASA first enforced implementation certain clubs objected, without checking the rules. It did not apply to the mass of runners and clubs participating recreationally.

By example: It is an IAAF requirement for Cape Town marathon to have an inspection of the elite athletes vest – normally at the technical meeting – for the event to be assessed to meet the Gold label standard.

The gold label standard, ensures that the top athletes are able to claim a gold label appearance, and tends to bring higher prize money – all of which benefits who? The local and international athlete.

By suggesting ASA should allow the internationally ‘illegal’ branded kit these athletes / club managers are defeating their own objectives, as the organisers would be breaking the IAAF rules, and could lose their label. (Hence loss of status, loss of media value, loss of sponsorship, less prize money, less appearance fee)

It requires pointing out that every top athlete in the world from sprinter to ultra runner in every country in the world is required to meet the IAAF rules.

Despite these rules the athlete, and their management companies ( who are qualified and affiliated Athletes Representatives), are able to generate excellent deals, finances and funds for these international athletes.

It is therefore surprising that it is only club managers, (a term / position that does not exists in either the IAAF or ASA rulebooks) in South Africa who feel that without the sponsors name across the front of the athletes vest they are unable to get sponsors or fees for the athlete.

An international athletes’ value, is and must surely, be seen as far more than being a running bill board, and more about the personality. The sponsorship international is directly of the individual athlete, whereas in many cases in this country the sponsorship value is negotiated to the club, and the club makes agreement with the athletes it signs.

Clubs then approach the races, for spots / entries for their runners.

Internationally it is the race organiser who ‘invites / contracts’ the elite field, each at a price, and each with specific roles, responsibilities and opportunities, which are then paid for by the race organisers from a specific budget.

There is of course no question that the corporate clubs, through the investment for branding by corporates, have assisted runners to achieve dreams and even improved many runners living standards.

It was ASA who negotiated this leniency with the IAAF in the 1990’s to allow for exactly that sort of investment by corporates, to assist in the development of the sport, through what was initially envisaged as super clubs.

To claim that ASA changed rules is incorrect. The suggestion that they deliberately tried to reduce the ability to gain sponsorship, would also be curious, given that all that has occurred in the past 18 months is that existing International rules were implemented for international events. This can easily be substantiated by anyone that knows the rules of the sport they are competing in.

TRUTH ABOUT 100K CHAMPIONSHIP FUNDING:
To say that the athletes have to pay their own way is misrepresenting the situation:

Let’s be clear that where a team of 12 runners comes from a place where the flights to the country capital are over 15 hours then the race organisers (not the federation) have to provide accommodation and full meals for the team and up to 6 support crew for 5 nights. Three men and women will be fully covered in costs

A travel grant for 3 men and 3 women are paid providing their 100km bests are sub 7 men and sub 8:30 women (and % paid for those slower), plus if a full team is sent then an additional small grant is paid.

All local internal transport is provided by the local organisation and generally for teams at zero cost.

None of this is secret – its available through the IAU website.

In short the remaining travel, per diem, visa costs, kit, and additional accommodation expenses are then to the cost of the federation and it is up to them as how they decide to handle this, but the majority of costs to have a team at the World 100k is taken between the IAU and the Local organisers.

The attached photo shows some of last years team trying their kit. Yes national kit but see also the roller suitcase. Was that a necessity? Are we truly saying that this sort of ‘accessory’ is being provided but that money for water and food throughout a journey is being deprived?

Even if an athlete for some reason did not have water, are we saying the team management would not buy water and rehydration for an athlete, and then be able to claim back that cost on return to the country? If that did not happen, then of course the question must be posed as to the suitability of the manager.

Claims that air flights were the cheapest really need to be compared with available funds, (and we know ASA has just come out of a cash strapped era. Simply put you cant spend what you don’t have, and team costs don’t work in isolation they work in terms of total number of teams, total number of athletes and support.

In case we forget, not so long ago the social media complained of the number of people selected to go and compete internationally. Again its not simply the athletes flights and accommodation there are additional expenses including visa’s kit and per diems.

In 1993 the then road running administration, SARRA, sent a team to the 7th world championships held in Torhout for the first time we were allowed international competition, and Cornet Matomane placed 3rd.

The first “unified” team under ASA was sent to the world 100k championships in Japan in 1994. This was managed by Vrenie Weslch and myself as Chef de Mission, and included physios amongst the support team.
Everything was covered and a US$50 per diem paid, plus each person was issued their ASA blazer, trousers, shirt and tie in addition to the running kit and tracksuit.

I am sure in past years, finances may have reduced the formal wear.

By comparison, when competing for the GB team between 1993 and 1998 I did have to contribute to minimal daily expenses, but those were more by choice for additional items as opposed to essential needs and primarily due to my travel distance.

Unless there has been a complete turnaround, claiming that any team member has to pay their way to compete is a stretch. To say they may have to contribute for some personal expense, is probably and possibly true.

TEAM SELECTION

Claims that the selection of a team is a surprise must surely be questionable:
The fixture has been on the ASA list since February and on the basis that a team was sent to the previous world championships would surely suggest, to those who seek to compete in the bigger global pool, or gain the honour of SA colours, that a team will be sent again.

I am not aware of any international competition that features on the ASA fixture list where qualifying athletes are not sent.
What would be the point of putting a fixture on the list if it was to have no impact on SA athletes at some level?

However, there also seems to be some confusion about an announcement by ASA that a 100km team would not be selected and such an announcement would certainly be a poor judgement prior to Comrades by ASA, as it would mean people would race too hard.

IMO, as an option, athletes should first have been asked to indicate if they wished to be considered for selection by say February.
The selection should have been on basis of past results plus performance and times in the 50 -56km ultras prior to comrades, then a squad with agreements on how Comrades could or could not be run, and the final team announced as it was after Comrades.
But this is one viewpoint only..

This should have come from the Ultra-Committee headed by George Lamb.

The reality and where i do agree entirely is that this committee should be pushing out more information;

There can be little doubt that South Africa would do very well in the 50km distances, and also have in recent years had at least two good to top class runners at 24 hours, who with advice, could have been guided to very useful 24 hour performances.
The question could be over the knowledge in depth of the Ultra committee to the range of ultra distances at world level.

That said there is no question, for all teams, it would be great if ASA posted the selection criteria on their web site – perhaps in a similar format to that used by the USA track and Field

http://www.usatf.org/Events—Calendar/2018/IAU-100-km-World-Championships/Qualifying-Standards.aspx

Despite their size, population and 1200 plus ultra-races, much of the ultramarathon status is due to the work of Dan Brannen, and Roy Pirrung, a friend who finished 5th just ahead of me in the 1992 Spartathlon. Those two campaigned through the 1980’s, 90’s and 2000’s to ensure the place of Ultramarathons in USA.

HOW IS REPRESENTING YOUR COUNTRY EVER DETRIMENTAL?

To suggest that representing your country is detrimental is questionable, on many levels.

Certainly the perception that as a Comrades gold medallist you are one of the best (short) ultra-distance runners in the world is a status many may cherish.

However, it has been proven that winning Comrades Gold does not mean that the same runner will dominate a 100km championships, let alone one held over an initial 2.5km lap and 13 x 7.5km undulating laps in a foreign country.

Similarly there many world 100k champions who have failed to perform after inter-continental travel to compete in the specific challenge of a 90km comrades…

The reality is Comrades is competed on a special, tactical and strategically run course against the best ultra (not the best marathon) runners in the country plus a few top (not necessarily the best) ultra runners from perhaps 3-4 countries who are either ‘bought’ in by clubs or are willing to pay at their own expense (apparently unlike our SA runners) to compete for a gold medal or a win.

[There are even people who have been brought by SA clubs who claim they have never been paid the agreed money]

By comparison the World 100km is a tougher challenge and the “big fish” in a “big pond” as there are around 35 countries that send their BEST runners to compete over the type of courses that are more available to everyone.

This gives even more credibility to those who succeed, such as Bongmusa’s 2nd place and the teams 1st place at the last championships.

However it’s not something that every Comrades champion will be able to achieve and that may reduce his or her standing in world rankings – That’s the risk of competing in the bigger competitive arena.

So yes it can be detrimental, and yes attempting this after a flat out Down Comrades is a risk, and a big ask. Those are however the choices to be made.


RETURN TO REALISM AND REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS

In all this post is simply suggesting that there is a need to see the bigger picture of athletics, not simply our emotional attachment to our own discipline.

I am not writing to defend the administration. I too have my concerns which i have aired and which is my right to do.

What then is my background to make such comments?
In the 37 years of my running involvement, I have been, and continue to be an ardent supporter of Ultra-distances.

I have competed internationally at that distance, chose 100k, 100 miles and beyond as my own preference for running:

From 1984 assisted with the formation and technical rules of ultra-distance through the fledgling IAU, which eventually saw Malcolm Campbell as President bring IAU onto the World scene, and the first world championships in 1987.

Even today I promote and assist with the organisation and assessment of ultra-events in various countries.

South African running administrators will relate of my vociferous challenges to put Ultra Marathoning on the agenda, eventually getting the records, colours, and even an ultra-committee as a part of the national structure.

Ultra is a passion: Passion often comes with a cost.

Those 37 years have exposed and taught me much about the realities of the sport, the commercial opportunities, and the status of ultra in the world of athletics.

There is nothing incorrect about having ambitions, nor the hopes of getting rewarded for efforts and successes, but one has to look at the reality of the situation.

At the end of the day we each have the choice of what we do either for a living or for recreation. When we do so, we may hope to make changes, but we have to accept the entry environment and the need to look at the bigger picture and the other responsibilities of the sport in our drive to change.

This is not to say we must accept the current situation, but let’s make the moves that allow effective change – make the sport bigger – make the credibility greater – make the media and sponsor attraction bigger – these are the moves that will bring the money that athletes are wanting..

This is already very long – BUT by no means covers all aspects (just some thoughts which each reader can explore further)

No matter the variation of views it remains constant – it is each athlete’s right to decide for him / herself if she wants to take up the honour of being selected for the country either as an individual or to contribute to the strength of a team.

This right must be protected, but before we stand behind that decision and encourage others to follow, lets be sure we know more about the situation and find out for ourselves a bigger and gain a better understanding of the situation and influences.


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