It takes a team to raise an athlete

Race, class and the story of struggle and sacrifice in the making of South Africa’s next generation of track and field athletes.

Sharlan Boer, coach Norman Ontong and Chenique Sas. Courtesy of Norman Ontong ©.

On April 22, 17-year-old Chenique Sas ran her personal best (PB) at the Athletics South Africa (ASA) Senior Track and Field National Championships at Green Point Athletics Stadium in Cape Town to win gold in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. In its summary of the event, ASA reported: “Chenique Sas collapsed at the finish after a tough 3 000m steeplechase race in 10:43.20, narrowly holding off Lizandre Mulder (10:44.14) …”

Steeplechase is known for being among the toughest track-and-field events. Although this was a “pure klas” (pure class) achievement for Sas, as various local newspapers reported, the focus on her “collapsing” or “exhaustion” fails to capture the significance of her victory. The story of struggle and sacrifice in the making of an athlete is not for governing bodies like ASA to tell. To unpack such stories requires attending to the athletes who crossed the finish line a few seconds later, the coach who remains unnamed, and the team that nurtures children against all odds.

Let’s start with the athlete Sas “held off.” Lizandre Mulder runs for Free State. She is white. Sas runs for Boland. She is coloured. Mulder recently graduated with a law degree from the University of the Free State and is set up for a successful career, with or without athletics. Sas, on the other hand, is at HTS Drostdy, previously a whites-only school, only because of her athletics achievements. Neither her material circumstances, nor her grades, would have qualified her to attend this school. Mulder trains alongside the likes of Olympian Wayde van Niekerk and Paralympian Louzanne Coetzee, at the state-of-the-art sports facilities of KovsieSport. Sas trains with a volunteer organization, almost persona non grata in athletics circles.

Still, this was not the first time Sas outran Mulder, seven years her senior and better known among the race officials and commentators. The last time Sas beat Mulder was at the Athletes Academy Invitational on March 28, where the two athletes pushed each other to achieve their individual PBs in the 3,000m steeplechase. Sas might continue to enter future competitions as an underdog, but on the running track the Sas-Mulder combo has all the makings of a healthy rivalry.

Chenique Sas is a member of Fit2Run, a small non-profit initiative run entirely by volunteers. It was established in 2008, when a group of committed runners and schoolteachers in Worcester and adjoining farmlands area observed, year after year, that while the primary school athletics competitions were dominated by coloured and African athletes from underprivileged backgrounds, the secondary school competitions were dominated by white athletes from privileged backgrounds. Their first response to support the talented primary school athletes was to introduce them to the local athletics club. But they soon found that the athletics club had no program for juniors and members were unwelcoming to children from poorer backgrounds. This is when Norman Ontong (Sas’s coach) and colleagues decided to set up Fit2Run, which would focus primarily on junior athletes.

In 2011, Fit2Run, based in Worcester, a small town 120km northeast of Cape Town, was finally ratified as an athletics club by Boland Athletics, the regional athletics federation, affiliated to Athletics South Africa (ASA). However, the “club” status was revoked before long. As Ontong shares in a chapter we co-wrote about Fit2Run for a book on physical culture in South Africa:

Based on Boland Athletics’ policy of “one club per town or municipal area” (Boland Athletics, 2012: sec.31.4.7), ostensibly put in place to unify racially separated athletics clubs in each town under apartheid, WAC [Worcester Athletic Club, the local athletics club] filed an objection against Fit2Run Athletics Club. We soon found ourselves in a legal battle with Boland Athletics, who won the case. By the end of 2012, they retracted our club status.

On the same day of her greatest achievement thus far, Sas also had her training partner, Sharlan Boer, running the finals. Boer runs for Western Province. She is a friend and a mentor to Sas. While both athletes train under the expert guidance of Ontong at Fit2Run’s training facilities, they run for different clubs, affiliated with different athletics federations within the Western Cape Province. This is one of the ramifications of the retraction of Fit2Run as an athletics club. Western Cape is the only province in the country with three provincial athletics governing bodies, despite the government’s mandate to have one provincial governing body per sporting code.

Not only is it expensive to compete as independent athletes, the Fit2Run athletes also end up running for different clubs affiliated with different federations. This effaces Fit2Run and the many struggles and sacrifices behind the success of the likes of Sas. It effaces the work of coaches and volunteers, who bear the burden of the legacies of apartheid but cannot be acknowledged when they tackle the socio-economic class manifestations of racist policies that remain in post-apartheid South Africa.

Communication scholars have pointed to how sports commentaries remain racialized, wherein which black athletes are repeatedly congratulated for their “natural” talent and white athletes for their technical skill and intelligence. The behind-the-scenes work, analysis, last-minute adjusting of race strategy, and care practiced by black athletes and coaches is lost in the way athletics results are reported by controlling bodies like ASA or sports media. The following example from Ontong, an experienced and successful runner, coach, and a meticulous student of the sport is instructive. It shows how strategy was adjusted, after consideration of the line-up of the final race:

The time [of Sas] was fastest but Kristy Bell was named as the favorite [to win the race]. I analyzed all the athletes in her [Sas’s] race. One hour before the SAs [the race], we changed plans. Our original plan was to go for the qualifying time for the World Youth (U20) Championships in Colombia, later this year (August 2-7), no matter if we came 3rd. When I analyzed the other athletes, I recognized that Sharlan was the fastest in a 2000m SC, Chenique 2nd and Bell 3rd. So, we decided to go for the win. That’s why Sharlan was in front for the first 3 rounds.

There was not enough info about the athletes’ 3000m SC races. That’s why I went back to their 2000m SC times. We didn’t worry about Mulder because Chenique beat her 4 weeks before [in the same event]. But Mulder came back really good.

Given the much-celebrated speech of former president Nelson Mandela that “sports have the power to change the world,” one would think that organizations such as Fit2Run would receive active support. Yet, its struggle to exist tells a more sobering tale. Fit2Run  continues as a non-profit organization, affirming that it is not sports, but individual and collective commitments that can change the world. But such changes require sacrifices and endurance to overcome the odds. Rather than earning a living from their professional expertise and experience in athletics, Ontong and his colleagues have taken to nurturing athletes for whom they will forever be raising funds. Increasing specialization in track-and-field, road-running, and cross-country, means that athletics is no longer the cheap sport it is often made out to be. The difference between collapsing at the finish line and finishing the race with raised arms is related to good(and often expensive) nutrition.

The real success of Fit2Run is personified more by Sharlan Boer than Chenique Sas. Boer has been with Fit2Run from the beginning of the organization. It is no surprise that she would run a race to her coach’s strategy to ensure Sas’s victory. Boer holds many regional records in her main events and regularly qualifies for nationals. At this stage, she is less likely to break any national or world records, but she is already mentoring upcoming athletes at Fit2Run.

A recent New Frame article about Keegan van der Merwe, a 26-year-old working class  coloured athlete from Mitchell’s Plain in the Western Cape, puts the work Fit2Run does in perspective. Despite commitment, talent, and grit, the level of athletics success Van der Merwe aspires to has thus far eluded him. His story also points to the neglected “sports development” that organizations like Fit2Run try to address. In the absence of Fit2Run, the stories of Boer, Sas and hundreds of other young athletes from Worcester’s coloured and black townships that Fit2Run caters for, would be similar to Keegan van der Merwe’s..

Sas has potential and time on her side to chase the world record in the steeplechase. And when she does, South Africans from all walks will not only cheer her on and celebrate all her victories as their own (as they have for Caster Semenya and Wayde van Niekerk), but also will admire the courage, struggles, and sacrifices she has made to achieve such success. However, there are few South Africans the likes of Ontong and his team. Whether she breaks the world record or not, Sas is assured that Fit2Run will be there to help drive her success and that of other aspiring athletes..,

Further Reading

I, Surya

The story of Surya Bonaly, and her unwillingness to yield to racist demands and expectations in the sport of figure skating.

The Falcon of Qatar

The Spring Issue of Middle East arts magazine, Bidoun, is about sports. This includes a piece on “Kenyan long- and middle-distance runners who have found infamy and fortune as Arabized athletes in the Gulf” on …