Once again we see leading athletes migrating between clubs looking for greener pastures.  This trend has been exacerbated in recent years by the demise of sponsored clubs and the initiation of others.
Few can argue the benefit of sponsors investing in and supporting the sport, but many have doubts over the benefits, motives, and sometimes the ethics of some commercial clubs.
The strong local club structure is responsible for 90% of the competitions on offer. Generally only major national events and track leagues are organized at provincial level.

Most clubs spawn from within a community. They grow from a desire of runners living in the area to share their sport and resources. The club success is largely determined by the ebb and flow in motivation and effectiveness of an internally elected committee, and   talent and performances emerges out of the camaraderie and spirit. In all but few instances the administration is run by volunteers, for no gain, with member effort raising the funds. Apart from special projects, the basic premise is simply to create and utilize funds on a needs basis, not to create a profit, or savings in excess of a reasonable safety net:

The introduction of the commercial clubs, (often referred to as professional clubs) changed much of that.
Unquestionably there is a need to recognize and reward the talents of our top and upcoming athletes, and frankly our races have not kept up with times with regard to entry fees and prize money.  The typical entry fees of R40 for the half marathon and R70-R80 for the marathon is four to five fold the maximum recommended entry fee allowed in the 1992 KZN Handbook. Prize money on the other hand varies between R200 and R300 for a half marathon and a mere R400 to R800 for a marathon, (often only R200).  These are the virtually identical to 1992 and if anything the depth of prizes has reduced.

A key reason professional clubs have flourished is that they give top runners the opportunity to earn a reward for their talents in return for marketing exposure. Whether or not these rewards are of commercial market value is something that perhaps deserves review by the sports administration before renewing the clubs registration.

While the professional clubs bring many positives to the table, current approaches have drawbacks that can offset the gains.
An immediate downside was the skimming off of talented athletes from the community clubs. Although rewarding individuals, it virtually killed the inter-club team competitions and reduced the role model and squad training benefits of the local clubs. With virtually any athlete capable of stepping onto the podium solicited into the professional fold, local clubs are now little more than social clubs, populated by older runners. This is hardly an attraction to youthful novices.
In theory, if a club has the cream of the crop, they should benefit from focused and competitive training and squad work.  But with contracted athletes come from all over the province club sessions become impractical. In many ways the performance enhancing potential of the professional system is lost:  runners are left without the guidance and encouragement available at local clubs, which partly accounts for the drop in competitive standards at provincial level.
Professional clubs are unfortunately sustained at the whim of commercially orientated decision making, so the demise of Liberty Life, Harmony, Rentmeester and others floods the market with talented athletes. As competition for places increase the value and incentive offered decreases, as corporates get more for their Rand. In short there is no sustainability, which limits the benefits to the sport.

This month’s launch of the Nedbank Club which has stated a few sensible and encouraging objectives, offers a ray of light.
Although opening in ten cities around the country, each club, like local clubs, must have a fixed home to operate from on a weekly basis.
Nedbank’s launch document puts the emphasis on helping ordinary runners achieve their goals and will support a limited number of promising elite South African athletes to achieve respectable times in the standard distances up to the marathon.  Dave Flood, who manages the Durban club confirmed that the target markets include Nedbank employees, their clients, women, youth and the disabled. At National level the highly respected Zithulele Sinqe has been appointed the club’s Development Manager.

This well thought out and stimulating approach to corporate involvement supports the existing club structure while providing assistance to promising South African talent.  Key to sustaining this ethos will be tight restriction on the elite aspect.
Few can forget the statements of Harmony’s launch that their focus was to develop South African athletes. No sooner had the ink dried on the contract than club and athlete managers seemed to have rights to virtually all the top Zimbabwean, Ethiopian and other athletes. Most other ‘professional’ clubs followed suit to protect their exposure on the podium, although it appears that not all managers benefited from a portion of the athlete’s prize money.

Assuming the Zimbabweans and other foreign athletes still compete for other clubs, the Nedbank kit will not mirror Harmony’s proliferation of the podiums if they stick assisting the ‘promising’ athletes and other stated objectives.
Indeed this may well be one measure of success for this new corporate club whose ideals certainly seem more founded in the sustainability and growth of the sport, than many of the previous commercially orientated ventures.

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