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1990 - 1995: The International Era

1990’s - The Internatinal Era

As South Africa moved from the 1980s into the 1990s, change was in the air. It had crept in during the 1980s, like a soft breeze that barely moves the leaves. But as the decade drew to a close, those sensitive to its delicate fragrance spoke, like Harold Macmillan had done 20 years before, of a new wind of change approaching.

On 2 February 1990, President F W de Klerk, at the opening of Parliament, announced unexpectedly to the world that Nelson Mandela would be freed within a matter of days, and that the African National Congress and other banned organizations were immediately free to begin legitimate political activities.

No person, organization or institution in South Africa remained untouched by this sea change in the history of South Africa. From that moment on, there began an inexorable process of transformation that would see the country changed forever. Within five years, a government democratically elected by the entire population, under a new constitution, was in place and Nelson Mandela was President.

For South African sports lovers, De Klerk’s announcement was greeted with undisguised glee. The days of boycotts, sanctions and sporting isolation would vanish as surely as the early morning mist evaporates in the noon sunshine.

But what of the Comrades Marathon, in 1990 still the country’s premier sporting event? Was this the kind of salvation it needed? Was this good news?

Look at it this way: the Comrades had enjoyed phenomenal support among the majority of (at least white) South Africans; the golden era of Bruce Fordyce, Wally Hayward and Frith van der Merwe was by no means at an end; South Africans were (of course) the world’s best ultra marathon runners, so who cared about the Germans or the Russians anyway; 31 May had de facto become Comrades Day with millions of viewers glued to their TV sets for hours; entry levels into the race were still growing, albeit at a slower rate, and corporate sponsors were pouring millions into the race in a sponsorship market that had precious little else of substance on offer.

Looking back to January 1990 and the events that followed, it is clear that the Comrades could have taken one of two paths.

It could have allowed the incredible changes associated with the explosion of South Africa into the world sporting arena to submerge it into an event of little, if any, significance, of interest only to the lunatic fringe of the athletics world and a few thousand masochists determined to run 90 km in a single day.

Or it could have seen the chance to take a wonderful race, so full of human skill and passion, and turn it into a one-of-a-kind event that would draw in the very best long-distance runners in the world, just as it had done over decades with South African athletes.

But the vision was even greater. If millions of ordinary South Africans could be captivated by the race, either as participants or viewers, why then could this formula not be exported internationally and raise the audience to tens of millions?

The story of the 1990s, then is the story of how the Comrades Marathon weathered this storm; how it grasped the opportunity and transformed itself from a local highlight viewed by world athletics as something of a freak sideshow, into the world’s most important road race of more than 42,2 km.

It is the story, essentially, of the struggle by South African athletes, both men and women, to retain ownership of precious gold medals, soaring prize money and sponsor incentives. Of how black South African men achieved more and more medal-winning positions. Of how technology and years of organisational experience combined to transform the Comrades into arguably the best organised road race in the world.

In the early 1980s, as Bruce Fordyce began his remarkable series of back-to-back victories, experts began to question his ability to win year after year. ‘The law of averages says that, sooner or later, the wheels must come off,’ was a kind of comment that summed up the prevailing mood. Fordyce himself was becoming anxious. ‘I can just see the newspaper headline if I don’t win the year,’ he once said, ‘”Fordyce, Fivedyce, No dice” is what they’ll write’.

Ironically, as the decade wore on, the mystique surrounding the man grew to such an extent that the possibility of Fordyce not winning became practically unthinkable. To the average follower of the race, Bruce Fordyce had become invincible.

So it was, that when his entry was announced early in 1990, he was immediately installed as out-and-out favorite, notwithstanding the fact that he’d given the 1989 race a miss.

Certainly there were other top contenders. Nick Bester, the iron man with mental strength and determination to match his powerful body; Mark Page, who had come so close in 1988 and whose aggressive front-running tactics could conceivably prove to be the undoing of Fordyce; and the old war-horse Hosea Tjale, for so long in the shadow of Fordyce, yet a fine, experienced runner in his own right.

The pack set off from Durban on a balmy morning, with the temperature a pleasant 150C. Soon the race settled down to its familiar pattern – the ‘TV runners’ up ahead, searching for their brief moment of glory, a group of potential gold medalists who were determined to stay ahead of Fordyce for as long as possible, and the Fordyce ‘bus’ itself, containing a host of hopefuls hoping to go along for the ride at the pace of the maestro.

By Botha’s Hill, the TV runners had quietly dropped out of contention, and Boysie van Staden, shadowed by Jetman Msutu, had moved into the lead. Behind them, Page and Israel Morake, a highly talented marathon runner but a novice in Comrades, lay ahead of Fordyce pack, which included Johnny Halberstadt, now a veteran, Charl Mattheus, Shaun Meiklejohn and Sam Tshabalala.

Van Staden and Msutu ran side by side, with the little black man shadowing the tall Van Staden with an intensity that bordered on the comical. Rumour has it that when Van Staden popped into the bushes for a brief pit-stop, Msutu quietly waited on the side of the road for him to emerge. Of such incidents are the legends of Comrades created.

By Alverstone, Page had caught the two leaders, but once through halfway, the lively RAC man had had enough of waiting for something to happen and made his own push, surging ahead in an aggressive move that would make him the unchallenged race leader for nearly 2 hours.

Behind Page, the pack began to shuffle itself as the favorites chased the 10 gold medal positions. For a while, Jetman Msutu hung on, but soon he was forced to drop back. Van Staden hit a bad patch and saw a by now much smaller Fordyce group sweep past. By Camperdown, only Meshak Radebe remained with Fordyce but the pair were still 4 minutes adrift of Page, with Msutu in second place. The race was on.

History has shown that the man who crests Polly Shorts hill first in the Comrades ‘up’ run is virtually certain of winning the race, and as Mark page started the long climb with a handy lead, this thought was uppermost in the minds of both himself and Bruce Fordyce.

For a while he kept moving forward but a short way up, his resolve evaporated and he began to walk. In no time, the figure of Fordyce appeared around one of the corners and the maestro was suddenly alongside. Neither an encouraging word nor the traditional handshake could get Page moving again, and Fordyce swept on up the hill with hardly a break in his stride.

The pressure of leading for so long, only to see his dreams of winning destroyed so late in the race, was too much for the hapless Page, and in the last few kilometers, Tjale and Radebe also came past, relegating him to a disappointing fourth place.

For Fordyce, the race was a triumph. He swept into Jan Smuts Stadium on a wave of euphoric cheering from the capacity crowd. It was his ninth victory, unprecedented in the history of the race. Although his time of 5:40:25 was way off his best, he had shown perfect race judgement by allowing Page to get away early and then closing in from behind at just the right time. It was a masterful performance.

Challenging the established gold medalists in 1991 was a new generation of Comrades hopefuls, determined to shift Fordyce from his throne. Nick Bester, the brash triathlete with a body seemingly sculpted from granite, Shaun Meiklejohn, the quiet industrial chemist from Carletonville, who from a distance looked confusingly similar to Fordyce and who needed to establish his own identity in the race; Gary Turner and Charl Mattheus, ambitious and talented ultra-distance athletes who had paid their dues and were looking for golds and more.

For the first time, some of the contenders stated frankly that Fordyce was not invincible. ‘He is not getting any faster,’ said Meiklejohn. Mark Page spoke from bitter experience: ‘Runners are getting braver about Bruce. Many more will be prepared to open up a gap on him because it’s the best way to beat him.’

Still, in the public’s mind, all Fordyce had to do was line up, and the race would be his. After all, he had not been beaten since 1980.

On a crisp, sunny day at the end of May 1991, a marvelous chapter in the history of the Comrades Marathon was closed as the end of the Fordyce era arrived. From being the invincible hero of the 1980s, Bruce, in one fell swoop, became mortal, just another brilliant runner who had an off-day.

It all started off with business as usual for Fordyce. Surrounded by a massive bus of hopefuls, he was at one stage forced by sheer frustration and crowding to peel off into the bushes, leaving the group rudderless, like a litter of puppies whose mother has suddenly disappeared.

By halfway, the warning bells were already ringing. Seven minutes behind the leader at Drummond was asking a lot of even Bruce’s legendary strength in the latter stages. And, ominously, Bester and Meiklejohn were putting time between themselves and Fordyce.

On Botha’s Hill, Bester pulled away in what turned out to be the decisive move of the race. Knowing the Fordyce was a long way back now, Bester sensed that a new winner would be crowned and laid his cards on the table. If there is to be a new winner, he thought, then it might as well be me.

Coming down Botha’s Hill and into Hillcrest, crowds of spectators and millions of television viewers watched in amazement and anguish as Fordyce lost place after place in the race. Then the unthinkable happened. In Gillitts, he veered off the road, spent time in the bushes and reappeared, running far slower than the athletes around him. At the top of Fields Hill, he stopped and gave an impromptu television interview on the side of the road.

‘It’s over,’ he announced, ‘this is not my day. No I won’t bail, that would be unthinkable. I’ll just join my old friend Deon Holthauzen and the two of us will make our way quietly to the finish’. And they did just that.

For Nick Bester, 1991 was a triumph. After taking the lead on Botha’s, he pushed ahead, gaining strength as the race wore on. Careful not to become overambitious, he ran within himself, winning comfortably in 5:40:53, a slow time that resulted more from the extra distance on the day – a testing 2 km – than any mediocrity among the athletes.

Shaun Meiklejohn came of age in the Comrades by claiming second spot (5:43:55), while unknown Colin Thomas finished in 5:45:13 for third position.

The golds consisted of a healthy mixture of established stars and newcomers. Israel Morake showed his class by finishing fourth, while Gary Turner and Charl Mattheus joined Bester and Meiklejohn in the group of younger athletes who were to become so dominant in the years to come.

But, all the athletes in the top 10, the crowd’s sentimental favorite was Alan Robb, who proved that his skills on the ‘down’ run were still intact. The welcome he received at Kingsmead as he shuffled home in eighth place could be heard kilometers away.

Bruce Fordyce finished the race in 6:57, the slowest time of his career. Ever the sportsman, he still managed to put on a brave face for the cameras and the fans.

His loss that day signaled more than the end of the most successful career of any Comrades athlete since 1921. With the appearance of Bester on the winner’s podium, the future of Comrades was once again in the balance. Fordyce, who virtually carried the race single-handedly through the 1980s, had been beaten. And with the whole country in the throes of rapid political and sociological change, would the public lose interest in the race, now that the gates had been opened to new, relatively unknown runners?

Perhaps the answer lay in who would step into Fordyce’s shoes. Would it be Bester, Meiklejohn, Morake, Thomas or Mattheus? Or, with South Africa’s sportsmen and women preparing to go to Barcelona for their first Olympic Games since 1960, could it possibly be some unknown athlete from outside the country, eager to win the world’s most famous ultra-marathon race? Time would tell.

When the entries closed for the 1992 race, it was clear that the Comrades, for the time being at least, did not feature on the priority lists of the international ultra marathon fraternity. Once again, the battle for top honours would be an all-South African affair.

Nick Bester, Shaun Meiklejohn, Mark Page, Boysie van Staden and Gary Turner were back, and Thompson Magawana, one of the South Africa’s best ever standard marathon runners, entered for the first time. As the experts compiled their probably top 10 lists, more and more names of black runners appeared, among them Jetman Msutu, Lucas Matalala and Theo Rafiri, a young, outspoken athlete from the Rocky Road Runners Club in Johannesburg.

The absence of Fordyce from the equation (he opted for a television commentator’s chair on the day), as well as the lack of top international athletes, suggested that this might well be a relatively dull Comrades personality-wise.

The race soon settled down into its characteristic pattern. By Fields Hill, a handful of ‘TV runners’ were still up ahead, with Bester, Meiklejohn, Page, Mattheus and the other hopefuls spread out behind.

This pattern remained intact until Inchanga, when the trio of Bester, Mattheus and Page hauled in the early leaders. At that stage, it certainly looked like a winner would emerge from one of these three.

At Cato Ridge, Mark Page set off as he had done two years previously, and soon a gap appeared between himself and the rest of the gold medal contenders. By Camperdown, Bester had shot his bolt, complaining of low blood sugar, and Mattheus was left to soldier on alone in second place, a minute behind Page.

No one was prepared for the drama that was to be played out in those final 25 km, and one of the few pieces of unpleasant Comrades history that would ensue.

At Camperdown, with Page apparently in an impregnable position, Mattheus suddenly slowed down and allowed Bester, who was not in good shape himself to slip past Thompson Magawana then also passed Mattheus, and the television cameras swung away from this trio and back to Page who by now was striding out confidently in the lead. As far as everyone was concerned, Mattheus was as good as buried.

But it was not to be. Page’s old bogey, cramps, struck viciously on the run down to the bottom of Polly shorts and he pulled up in the middle of the road in agony, clasping his thigh. With him stopped the entire entourage of lead motorcycles, press truck, VIP buses and officials. The whole race seemed to have ground to a sudden and dramatic halt.

Not so Charl Mattheus. From nowhere, the RAU student appeared in the distance, charging down the hill towards the crowd stopped in the middle of the road. Within seconds he was into the group and then past it, pulling away from the stationery Page as if his life depended on it. Abruptly the entourage got into gear and moved forward, leaving a bemused Page behind in the fumes.

Perhaps the most apt remark that day came from TV commentator Tim Noakes, who immortalized the situation by rather irreverently called Mattheus’ recovery ‘the biggest comeback since Lazarus’.

Mattheus continued on untroubled to the finish, winning in 5:42:34. there he hauled an engagement ring out of his pocket and publicly proposed to his girlfriend. It was a fairytale ending and everyone shared in the warm glow of a plan coming together.

In the bitter battle for the other golds, Jetman Msutu came of age by passing several tiring runners to claim second position, while Mark Page eventually got going again and struggled on to the finish to claim third spot. Behind him, Shaun Meiklejohn, Nick Bester and Boysie van Staden added to their respective collection of golds, while Koos Morwane, Theo Rafiri and Zephania Ndaba proved that the growth in black domination of the race was becoming  a real factor.

Some six weeks after the race, when Comrades 1992 had pretty much been put to bed, rumours started circulating that in his post-race dope test, Mattheus had tested positive for banned substance. Horror struck, the road running fraternity screamed for news, and in mid-July both the Sunday Times and the Natal Mercury broke the story that the winner had traces of a stimulant in his urine and had been stripped of his victory and gold medal.

Jetman Msutu was declared the winner, all the other gold medalists shifted up a position, and Joseph Mokoena, who had crossed the line 11th, suddenly found himself amongst the golds.

The post-mortems continue to this day. The pro Mattheus faction, among whom can be numbered Tim Noakes himself, claim that the athlete declared taking an anti-flu preparation days before the race and that it could not have helped him anyway. On the other hand it was argued that ‘rules are rules’ and how else could Mattheus’ miraculous recover be explained.

In retrospect, there is not doubt that the incident did more damage to Mattheus than it did to the Comrades. For years, he was considered by many people to be a cheat and the stigma followed him around like a tainted shadow. In one particularly ugly situation, Belgian runner Jean-Paul Praet even attacked Mattheus physically during the course of the World 100 km Challenge, arguably costing him a top placing. Praet was subsequently disqualified.

It is fitting to conclude this chapter in Comrades history by saying that, to his eternal credit, Charl Mattheus did not walk away after 1992. Rather, he dedicated the next seven years of his life to proving that he was capable of winning the race legitimately. By the end of the decade he had done just that and can now quite correctly be placed alongside the very best runners ever to have graced this great race, which, after all, is bigger that any person who runs it.

The Barcelona Olympic Games came between the 1992 and 1993 Comrades races, and signaled the most important change the race was to see during the 1990s. Just prior to Barcelona, South Africa had been readmitted to the world athletics family, but this did not come in time for the elite corps of international ultra-distance runners to prepare for the Natal Classic. So 1992 remained an all-South African affair.

Not so 1993. Although the World 100 km Challenge was staged just a few weeks before 31 May, enough interest had been generated overseas for a handful of top contenders to elect to run in South Africa. The international invasion, which was to change the face of Comrades forever, had begun.

It needs to be said, however, that the international runners needed a certain amount of encouragement, and the concept of a ‘race within a race’ was born. Six top international runners, two each from Britain and Germany, a Pole and a Frenchman, were invited to compete as a team against a squad of locals, who would be awarded national colours for their efforts.

With a host of well-known names and experienced gold medalists in action, the contest took a most unlikely turn when, after halfway, a German chef de cuisine from the Black Forest and an unknown South African with a single gold staged one of the best man-to-man battles of the decade.

In fairness, Charley Doll came to Comrades with a good pedigree. The 39-year-old German, who spoke no English, boasted a 100 km best of 6:29 the seventh best time in the world. And, it was rumoured, he could also create a mean Black Forest cake.

Taking the lead soon after Drummond, Doll began to run away from the best South Africa had to offer. Spectators and the media alike were amazed that none of the local favourites were able to respond to this casual challenge to their authority in the Comrades.

Not so Theophilus Rafiri. The gangly Rocky Road Runner set off in pursuit and closed in on Doll down Botha’s Hill and through Hillcrest, finally passing him in Gillitts. On and on he went at a frantic pace, fairly sprinting down Fields Hill, eventually building a 4-minute lead.

Doll soldiered on, using his strong, fluid style to maintain a steadier pace. By Cowles Hill, Rafiri was slowing, thanks to his suicidal charge down Fields and Doll could see victory once again within his grasp. The crowd sensed a thrilling race to the wire, with a ‘local versus overseas’ flavour to boot.

With just 5 km to go, Doll passed an exhausted Rafiri and stormed home to win the race in 5:39:41, 2 minutes and 35 seconds ahead of Rafiri who just managed to stay ahead of a fast-finishing Rasta Mohloli.

Shaun Meiklejohn collected another gold, while Thompson Magawana, holder of one of the most spectacular records in local road running – 3:04 in the Two Oceans – duly collected his Comrades gold medal. Sadly Magawana never won gold again and eventually died of pneumonia resulting from infection by HIV.

Through an interpreter, Doll was generous in his praise of the race. ‘There is no ultra-race in the world like it’, he said. ‘Many other top international runners will want to win it.’ Little did he know how prophetic his words would turn out to be.

Doll’s 1993 win ignited the spark of international interest in the race that was to turn into an inferno by the end of the decade. Early in 1994, Doll’s entry was the end of the decade. Early in 1994, Doll’s entry was received, together with those of several other well-known international names, including Swiss mountain runner Peter Camenzind, Konstantin Santalov, the Russian-born World 100 km champion, Frenchman Denis Gack and Australia’s Don Wallace.

All the top local men were back, bristling with patriotic fervour in the face of this attempt by the international fraternity to hijack their precious Comrades. Nick Bester, Rasta Mohloli, Theo Rafiri and Charl Mattheus all entered, as did Bruce Fordyce, although many felt that the best the maestro could hope for was a place in the golds.

Early in the year, whispers began to do the round that Alberto Salazar could be running. These rumours turned into fact when Salazar’s sponsor, Nike, announced that the legendary Cuban-born American icon would indeed be coming out of retirement for the Comrades. Nike, in a well-orchestrated PR campaign, gently released snippets of information about Salazar, and as this went on, an amazing picture merged. Not only had Salazar not raced for five years, but he had hardly ever ventured outside and was doing 65 km training runs on a treadmill inside his New York home. It was the stuff of which legends are made – and the media and public loved it. No one could wait for 31 May, especially after Salazar said prior to the race, ‘I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could win … the race is in the hands of the God’.

By the time the field had settled down after the initial shake-out up to Westville, it was clear that Salazar had faith, not only in God, but in his own running prowess. With Dirkie Moolman of Estcourt playing early pacesetter, Salazar soon found himself in second place, moving steadily away from the pack of experienced gold medalists and other hopefuls.

It had been many years since a potential winner had taken so emphatic lead. Fordyce’s theories on how to win Comrades were certainly being put to he test.

At Drummond, Salazar was well clear of an ailing Moolman, with Magawana, Bester, Rafiri and Livingstone Jabanga close behind. Fordyce was by now 12 minutes off the pace. On and on he went, over Inchanga, through Cato Ridge and Camperdown, up to Umlaas Road and down to the foot of Polly Shorts. His face showing no emotion behind dark glasses, his muscular body glistening with sweat. Salazar held an audience of millions at the roadside and watching on television in rapt attention as he entered unknown territory up Polly’s.

Although his pace did drop fractionally, the American emerged unscathed at the top of the hill, and, with Pietermaritzburg in sight, it was clear that a famous victory was about to happen. At the end, the winning time of 5:38:39 was not exceptional, but given his total inexperience over any distance beyond 42.2 km, it was a remarkable performance by anyone’s standards.

Behind him, Nick Bester put in a mighty surge over the final 10 km and closed the gap considerably. But it was too late and he came home 4:13 behind Salazar. Rasta Mohloli claimed his second consecutive third place, with veteran Camenzind, powering his way through the golds to claim fourth with a brilliant performance.

All branches of athletics, including road running and track and field, were by this stage fully professional, with the age-old practice of under-the-table payments and the quaint system of trust funds finally collapsing under an avalanche of commercial demands by top athletes and their agents. The International Amateur Athletics Federation was amateur in name only.

This was no more evident than in the world of marathon running, where giant city marathons competed for the services of the world’s elite athletes by offering huge appearance fees, prizes and incentives. There was no way that Comrades would be able to avoid the issue. The top runners, both South African and international, would simply not run if there was no money around.

So it was that the CMA introduced prize money in 1995, on a structured basis, with the men’s and women’s winners collecting R45 000 and cash going down to tenth place. There were howls from the traditionalists, and some long-standing officials even quit in disgust, but prize money had come to stay.

There was another first that year. With a new government in place, the old Republic Day (31 May) had become a politically incorrect anachronism and was promptly done away with. In its place came Youth Day, 16 June, and so the Comrades Marathon was shifted after having been staged on 31 May for decades.

The pre-race hype machine was dealt an early blow when Alberto Salazar, who had entered again, withdrew, citing injury. A motley collection of Russians entered, including Konstatin Santalov, who had disappointed the previous year, and Alexei Volgin, a lanky former race walker who could speak no English.

With the overseas contingent looking decidedly wobbly for a change, the locals reveled in the situation. In any case, the public was hungry for a new South African Comrades hero for, since the Fordyce era had ended, no man had won the race more than once. So the media singled out three runners as the new breed of local superstar, Nick Bester, Charl Mattheus and Shaun Meiklejohn. Given this trio’s consistent record in recent years, plus the added advantage that they were all locally-bred boys in the mould of Fordyce, Robb and Preiss, the choice seemed reasonable. Now all they had to do was dominate the race, after which a new super-hero would be crowned and everyone would be happy.

With Shosholoza, the anthem of the triumphant World Cup-winning Springbok rugby team, ringing in its ears, the huge throng left the Pietermartizburg City hall in the dark on the 89 km journey to the sea on this, the 70th running of the Comrades Marathon.

For a long time the favourites held back, Fordyce-like allowing a host of rabbits to set the pace. But on the long climb up Inchanga, Meiklejohn and Mattheus broke away together and quickly moved clear of the rest of the favourites. Surprisingly, it was only in Kloof that they eventually passed the final rabbit and, side by side, they swept on towards Fields Hill.

The pair ran down the killer hill together, but at the bottom it was Meiklejohn who looked the stronger, gently opening up a gap on his rival along Pinetown flats. Mattheus, to his eternal credit, was not done for and found a hidden source of strength up Cowies Hill, taking the lead from an exhausted looking Meiklejohn. Now it was his turn to open up and lead the way through Westville and right into Durban.

But Meiklejohn was not done for just yet. He had given up his permanent job to concentrate fully on Comrades and had relocated with his family to Hilton, there to prepare unhindered for the race. With Charl Mattheus still in sight up ahead, he glanced down at his hands, on which he had written his watchwords for the day, ‘relax’ and ‘control’.

On the climb up to Tollgate, he gradually closed the gap on Mattheus, and dealt the coup-de-grâce going over the top of the final hill. It was a death blow to Mattheus, who could not respond at that late stage, and Meiklejohn, resplendent in the bright red colours of his new sponsor, Mr Price, went on to win the race in 5:34:02, a minute clear of a bitterly disappointed Mattheus.

It had been one of the classic down-run duels of the Comrades. From as far back as Inchanga the pair had waged a bitter battle of tactics, willpower and pure endurance to rival classics of years gone by such as Malone/Kuhn in 1967, Masterton-Smith/Burree in 1931 and Robb/Fordyce in 1982.

Alexei Volgin was the surprise third-place finisher while Rasta Mohloli and Gary Turner added to their respective gold medal collections. Nick Bester finished a disappointing – for him – ninth, while Colin Lindeque came out of the shadow of his famous sister Colleen de Reuck, by coming in seventh.