United in challenge and confrontation
At a deeper level, the message of the Comrades to South Africa was clear; men and women running together, helping one another, honouring one another’s efforts, all united in challenging the race and confronting themselves. The blanket TV coverage of the Comrades experience in the 1980s has had a powerful and unifying effect on a troubled country. As if to confirm the broad power of the race, by 1989 there were over 12 000 starters – but in fact it was the end of a golden era.
By the time of the next Comrades in 1990, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison and South Africa was on a road that would lead inexorably to the white minority giving up the political power it had enjoyed for so long. The country’s sporting landscape changed dramatically, with renewed participation in rugby and cricket Tests, the Olympic Games, and so many other events. There was so much else now to occupy the attention of the TV sports producers, who were in any case looking for new challenges, and naturally sensitive to how starved the viewers were of international coverage involving South Africans. It was inevitable that the Comrades must lose the exclusive, almost adoring TV attention it had enjoyed in the tense, turbulent 1980s. And so there was a decline in the stature of the Comrades in the 1990s, seen in both the number of entries and the more limited TV coverage.
But the Comrades will survive the eccentric variations that seem to be imposed from time to time. It is unique among the great sporting events of the world. Apart from the five-year break during the Second World War, it has been held every year without fail, a source of comfort in its simple continuity. Like other sporting codes and events, it has reflected times, customs and attitudes of its society. When apartheid was rigidly enforced, the Comrades was whites-only, but when the barriers came down it took the opportunity to change. It has remained in touch with its Natal roots and values, although these have sometimes been rather too conservative – or liberal – for runners from other provinces. Much to be valued is the survival in the Comrades is the ethos of the Club. Too many sports have cut themselves off from their roots and their clubs are dying, which means these games will not survive at community level
So how should the Comrades proceed into its next century? Sport in general is undergoing enormous changes. Thanks to the combination of jet travel and satellite technology, seasonal variations in sport have almost disappeared and the age of the all-rounder has almost gone. Specialisation will soon be drilled down even into school sport, and even there the traditional winter and summer seasons are already disappearing. It is common for talented schoolboys to be encouraged to dedicate themselves only to one sport throughout the year, just because they are good at it.
Soon the major TV networks and multinational sponsors will between them administer the great games which were invented and codified by the Victorians. Sports which do not adapt to the demands of TV will be crowded out. Individuals whose bodies cannot take the punishment of year-round fixture lists will retire early – or simply no longer aspire to play at the highest level. There will be no place for the doctor or the lawyer, the printer or the railway guard, in games at the highest level – and sport will be much the poorer for it.
A return to Comrades values
The Comrades can play its role in this environment. It is time for a regeneration of the Comrades, to look back at the simple vision of Vic Clapham. Remember, this race was based not on an impulse for organised recreation, but on the need to express the values of loyalty, friendship, determination and commemoration. It is time to build on that original vision by formally dedicating the Comrades Marathon of the 21st Century to those values. You can keep prize money and sponsorship by all means, and make it easy for the TV producers to continue covering the race.
But above all, the Comrades must move on in the same way that it started: as the race where the ordinary man or woman can mount an extraordinary sporting challenge, and win. If that opportunity remains unsullied, the Comrades may perform its greatest service yet.