What’s your opinion? Your silence is deafening.

Have you ever wondered what it takes to become a top 10 ranked race in South Africa? Organisers understandably capitalise when an “authority” ranks their race as Top 10. Although everyone appreciates recognition for effort, the use of web scoring and forums need to be put into perspective, not simply in terms of race rankings but the impact such seemingly credible information has on the sport.

Over 100 000 registered runners have, perhaps because of apathy, let a minority of people have a greater influence on our sport than they deserve.

We have been deafening in our silence and, influenced by web opinion, allowed a minority to scratch the itch of irritation between federation, administration, clubs and runners. It’s time to speak up, take charge of our sport and make a difference.

Consider some website and forum facts:

According to the Runners World web site, and 2006 race rankings, KZN’s Mont Aux Sources 50 km Challenges leads with a magnificent 92% average rating, with the Springbok Vasbyt 13 km gaining equal top position. Other ranked KZN events include: Mondi half-marathon (86%, fourth), Mkuze Game run 16 km (85%, fifth), Comrades (83%, seventh), KwaZulu Weavers (83%, seventh), Postnet Marathon (80%, 10th), Ethekwini Half Marathon (12th 78%), Huletts 25 km (75%, 15th).

However, the fact that both Johannesburg and Cape Spar ladies’ events have higher rankings than the massive Durban flagship event, leads one to start questioning the figures, as does the fact that Two Oceans half-marathon ranks eighth with 82%, the full 56 km ranks 11th with 79%, and the extremely popular Knysna half marathon, that fills entries in less than a week, ranks a lowly 10th place with 80%.

The RW rankings are based on the top percentage scores, grouping all races with the same score at the same level. This puts 125 races in the top 20 ranked scores. In comparison the top 20 races are split over seven different score levels — and importantly only drew a total of 422 votes between them.

Compared with over 100 000 registered runners, this 0,54% sample is anything but representative, not only because it is a miniscule number, but also because access to the Internet by definition is anything but representative of South Africa’s running population. This demographic skewing is further substantiated by the roll call of judges available on the website.

On average, discounting Comrades which recruited 122 votes, the top 20 races only averaged 22 votes a piece and indeed the top race garnered only 24 votes in being ranked number one in South Africa.

The credibility of this voting system requires severe questioning.

In the whole of 2006 there were 767 registered race judges, over 320 of whom ranked only one race. A cursory inspection suggests that most of these efforts were simply to support their own clubs’ race. Only around the top 100 judges were consistently active scoring just over one race per month.

Any race that can recruit 10 or more “friendly” votes scoring an average of 80% or more will make the top 10, and make no mistake organisers capitalise on the potential marketing benefits.

For example one Pietermaritzburg marathon claims that “this race was highly rated by the Runners’ World race ranking judges” to entice entries.

The truth?

A mere 29 votes were cast, of which at least 25% were members of the organising club, with one person voting twice. Apart from one voter, this was the only race that these “judges” ranked in 2006, and perhaps not surprisingly these votes were all between 84% and 90%. Without these votes, the race average would drop below 77%, relegating it below an additional 30 more races.

It’s clear that with a bit of organisation and manipulation, race organisers can top rank their events, gaining not only an award, but also marketing value. The point is that when promoted in the magazine and at the awards ceremony such details are not divulged; instead the running public is left with a different perception.

In fairness to RW they do state on their website that the results are based on “judges” opinion and not science, and this marathon is only an example of what is undoubtedly going on around the country. None of this means that these are poor events but rather indicates how forums are used to manipulate perceptions in our sport, especially when banding about opinions with percentages.

With over 900 races and 100 000 registered runners the race rankings are based on considerably less than one percent. Statistically the rankings are at best meaningless.

The outcome of the various polls, some of which are highlighted in the following month’s magazine, is suspect at best.

For example in a poll questioning the faith runners had in the people in charge of road running:

•31,1% thought the leaders were messing up the sport.

•22,2% believed leaders were doing a good job, but made some dodgy decisions.

•22% didn’t know who the decision- makers were.

•20,7% said they felt a good job was being done.

•3,7% felt it didn’t affect them — so don’t care.

The impression promoted is that 35% of roadrunners are disgruntled, and 42,9% feel that generally the leadership was doing a good job, but the true difference of the percentages represented only a 25-vote difference. As mechanism for debate such forums are valuable, but as statistical indicators of the sport this skewed demographic sector should not be used to determine or promote the future policy for the sport.

So now the crunch. Where can we get the true view of the sport — where can runners truly air, debate and make changes to our chosen passion?

The athletics’ constitution would have us work through clubs and their committees, to provinces and their committees, with proposals then validated at general and extra general meetings.

Experience has proven this to be ineffectual, to the extent that many who have worthy ideas and concepts have simply abandoned hope in frustration at the natural time lag involved in this protocol.

Unquestionably many aspects of our sport that need review and change. Very few administrators would disagree with such sentiment, but of course what and how one generates change is a subject with as many views as contributors.

The national government regularly organise the “people’s government forums”, where government goes to the people. If the mammoth national structure can arrange such interaction, surely it is a principle that KZNA can adopt on a regular basis with a number of the provincial athletic structures.

Coaches, officials, clubs, road runners, cross country athletes, track and field athletes, and race organisers are the key groupings deserving of special open forums on, say, a four-monthly basis.

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