On June 10, 2018 Ann Ashworth fulfilled a lifelong dream and won the Comrades Marathon. Two weeks later she became a champion.
Champions have to make sacrifices. Ann knows all about sacrifices - she made plenty before she got to the start line in Pietermaritzburg.
Sadly, her latest sacrifice was an easy one to make - turning down the chance to represent her country at the 2018 100km World Championships in Croatia.
To her club-mates she is known as the Iron Lady. An advocate by day, but an ultra-runner by morning and evening, this Iron Lady has legs that are wired for long distance running and a mind that is wired for justice.
Most Comrades winners would take some time off, wallow in the glory of their victory and use their raised profile to get enhanced endorsement deals. Ann is not that kind of champion.
Ann could have declined the call-up quietly. She could have said, “Thanks, but I’ve already got other plans in September” like several other athletes have done (the majority of the women’s team have already withdrawn) - but she’s not one to smile sweetly and flutter her eyelids for the cameras. Ann is not that kind of champion.
So what kind of a champion is Ann Ashworth?
Ann is the kind of champion who founds running clubs to improve road running in South Africa. She’s the kind of champion who gives motivational talks at schools, churches and running clubs for free. She’s the kind of champion who gives back and develops talented athletes - particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ann is the kind of champion who gets her hands dirty and leads from the front.
In 2013, together with her husband David, she founded the Born2Run athletics club as a stepping-stone between social and elite clubs. The club has a strong focus on development running and initiated a successful grass roots initiative in Soweto. The Born2Run club continues to thrive and has produced a number of Comrades and Two Oceans gold medallists.
Inspired by the success of the men’s only TomTom team (also coached by John Hamlett) and the success they’d had in the 2016 100km World Championships, Ann wanted to create a ladies only equivalent. In October 2017, the Massmart Running Club was born. Ironically, Ann’s original vision for the team was to develop the core for a South African ladies 100km team to challenge for the world title.
After general disinterest from Athletics South Africa (ASA), the original vision died. However, Team Massmart continued to focus on the development of local ultra running talent. Uniquely, Team Massmart looks to identify and nurture runners who are not already running for other elite teams. The sponsorship from Massmart (and Puma for kit) allows their athletes to be properly coached, mentored and have costs covered for major races. Small financial retainers and incentives are also provided. All this creates an environment that nurtures talented female athletes, prevents over-racing and enables many athletes to realise their potential. The results have been spectacular – highlighted by a second placed team result at Two Oceans and winning the team prize at Comrades.
What has ASA done for road running recently? Let’s take a look at some recent examples:
2016 IAU 100km World Championships in Los Alcázares, Spain
In 2016, South Africa sent a men’s team to the event for the first time in five years (no women’s team was selected). South Africa managed to win the team prize and Bongmusa Mthembu won the silver medal: A very good result considering they were on the cheapest flights out there and had a long layover before the connecting flight to Spain. Former Comrades winner, Gift Kelehe (who finished ninth in the event), later highlighted that the athletes weren’t even given petty cash to buy a cooldrink while they were stuck at the airport.
2018 World Half Marathon Champs in Valencia, Spain
After ASA bungled the Schengen visa application process, the South African team’s visa was denied. Instead of arriving four days before the event ensuring enough time to recover from the flight and acclimatise - they scrambled to the start less than 24-hours before the gun fired. On top of this, the team was also booked on the cheapest flight option with a long layover. Despite this some runners did exceptionally well, rising star Nolene Conrad ran a personal best and finished 25th whilst in the men’s race Stephen Mokoka was 16th (just 90 seconds behind the winner).
Most local media pundits called the performance “gutsy”. How did ASA President Aleck Skhosana react? Instead taking some accountability and apologising to the athletes for the bungling of his organisation, he lambasted the team in an official ASA statement saying it was, “Not exactly a good day at the office for South Africa”. He went on to further state, “We need to find a solution and close the gap in the performance delivery of runners at both road and cross-country. Their counterparts in Track and Field are far ahead.”
It’s not often that there is a nice, simple solution to a complex problem but in this case I’ve got one for you Aleck Skhosana - resign.
So Aleck Skhosana, why are road running and cross-country lagging behind track and field? Once again, it’s a fairly easy answer – because ASA are spending no time, energy or money developing road running and cross-country as a sport.
Aside: Who is Aleck Skhosana?
A quick Google search on the man who heads ASA produces some interesting results. Serious allegations of fraud, gross corporate mismanagement and the misappropriation of Lotto funding (according to the reports, enabled because he was in the habit of signing blank cheques) whilst he was President of KwaZulu-Natal Athletics. This would kill the aspirations of most officials but in ASA this is your ticket to the top - he was elected ASA President a short while later. Mysteriously, it looks like the “forensic investigations” mentioned in the reports have been shelved.
READ: SASCOC order ASA to act on damning Skhosana report
READ: ASA accused of ignoring damning report on Skhosana
Transformation is always a controversial topic. Comrades was the first major multi-racial sporting event in South Africa and road running is arguably the most inclusive sport in the country. Running is also an easily accessible sport - there’s no need for special equipment or training to get started. Surely transformation shouldn’t be an issue in road running?
The picture below is from this year’s Comrades magazine highlighting who the race organisers consider the top 10 gold medal contenders. Notice anything strange? As one would expect the men’s page is dominated by black athletes but the ladies page only has one black athlete (Fikile Mbuthuma who finished 12th). Taking a quick look through the top 50 ladies results at this year’s Comrades, it looks like there are only four black ladies in that list (most of them from Team Massmart). It’s truly disappointing that this is a picture from 2018 - how much talent and potential is unrealised throughout South Africa?
Ann received a lot of support for her Team SA withdrawal tweet. One of the supportive replies was from Bakhokhele Ndamse, "ASA is like an absent father who sits on the side and watches the child grow, then when he's successful he claims the child as his."
Bakhokhele’s comparison is very fitting. I would add that ASA is a father who stopped paying maintenance ages ago, a father with a habit of arriving drunk to big occasions and ruining them - and a father who has no shame in claiming the hard-earned money of his children while he lazes around and eats cake.
That South African athletes are still competitive in races like Comrades is largely due to the club structures - and in particular the elite clubs who've developed the sport. In the absence of a father, they’ve stepped in as a surrogate to raise the athletes and fill the vacuum left by ASA.
You would expect that ASA would be happy that someone else it taking good care of its children. Sadly not.
At the beginning of 2017 ASA made rule changes, specifically around the how team and sponsor logos could be displayed on athlete’s running kit. This was a change specifically targeted to prejudice road running clubs with corporate sponsorships. Essentially this was a move to dry-up club funding and divert the corporate sponsorships into ASA coffers.
Our athletics bodies have a long history of scheming how to get their dirty hands on corporate sponsorship. Corporates want to back winners and see a return on their investment. Whilst ASA and regional athletics bodies struggle to attract corporate sponsorship (primarily because they have a long history of ineptitude, negligence and waste), many corporate-backed running clubs have emerged over the last decade (and it is these clubs that have driven the development of running and ensured South African athletes remain competitive).
One of these devious schemes was hatched in 2016 when Central Gauteng Athletics informed the corporate/elite clubs that their annual membership fees would be increased from R5 000 to R100 000. What would the elite clubs get for this exorbitant increase? Pretty much nothing, in a special meeting to discuss the matter they were told by Richard Stander (Acting CEO of ASA) that, “ASA would not be assisting in the development or promotion of road running at all” and that his preference was to focus on track and field ”because that’s where the publicity and money is”.
Aside: Stander has a long history of incompetent meddling as this article from 2010 highlights.
ASA is a father with three families (track and field, cross-country and road running) but only one of them gets any attention. After being in the doldrums for several years, track and field has had a recent resurgence closely linked to renewed support and funding. You would think that the correlation between funding and results would spark a similar change in the approach to ASA’s other families.
South Africa is unique in our passion for ultra marathon running. There is no ultra marathon in America or the United Kingdom with over 1 000 finishers - in South Africa an ultra marathon with 1 000 finishers is considered a small field.
Road running in South Africa is massive - it’s in our blood. We have an incredibly strong club system and culture which is also unique - we have hundreds of thousands of club runners and each one pays an annual license fee to ASA. Unlicensed runners have to buy a very expensive temporary license for every race they run. ASA takes a significant percentage of every race entry fee from every race in the country. On top of this there are sponsorships, television rights and Lotto funding. My conservative estimate is that this brings in at least R100 million per year for ASA (and probably a lot more). How much of this goes back into developing the sport and athletes? Very little. There is plenty of money coming in, very little of it is seen by the athletes.
Ultra running is to South Africans what rugby is to New Zealanders - and our men and women should be dominating the sport. But if Richard Stander was the New Zealand Minister of Sport, he’d be diverting all the money from the All Blacks and giving it to the soccer team for acting lessons.
Speaking of acting, Richard Stander was appointed “Acting CEO” of ASA in May 2016. He’s still acting over two years later. The South African road running community would love him to stop acting and do a real job - or move aside and give the position to someone who can.
There was an announcement a couple of weeks before Comrades that, despite being the men’s defending champions, South Africa would not be sending a team to the IAU 100km World Championships this year due to a “lack of funding”. Therefore, it was a big surprise when a ASA team selection announcement came out last week.
How does one find out that you’ve been selected to represent your country? It should be a joyous and momentous occasion. Not if you’re a South African ultra runner.
Aside: This is the press release announcing the team for the 100km World Championships. The grammatical quality is shocking (but this is the norm for ASA press releases). I enlisted the help of a fellow Comrade, club mate, digital marketing manager and self-confessed grammar Nazi, Robyn Porteous, to help correct all the errors. Robyn has a plethora of English degrees and a major in proofreading.
It seems that ASA releases the announcement and then waits for the internet to do its thing. After a few email hops, the announcement reached John Hamlett (Ann’s coach). One change Ann made to her running approach this year was focussing on the mental aspect. These days, she is a firm believer in self-affirmations and her motto for Comrades was an Eric Liddle quote, “God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
After her Comrades win she reflected on whether God had a bigger plan for her after that win. When Ann received the forwarded email announcing the team for the 100km World Championships and saw her name in it, she realised what that purpose was: To use the platform that comes with winning Comrades to fight for better support for athletes.
Very few people expected Ann to win Comrades. No one predicted it beforehand. Even as she was approaching Moses Mabhida Stadium, former winner Caroline Wöstmann (on the SABC commentary team) exclaimed, “I would never had predicted that she could have taken the win today.” But she did.
At the beginning of the year Ann replaced the header picture on her Twitter account with another affirmation, “Underestimate me, I dare you.” At Comrades, all her competitors underestimated her and she won.
By her own admission she’s not the fastest runner (speed is relative - Ann’s marathon PB is 2:47, faster than most of us can run but a lot slower than most of her competitors). Ann’s strength is endurance. If anyone can see this battle through it’s Ann Ashworth. When you start a Comrades Marathon you don’t know you’re going to finish, let alone win. But it’s worth trying. The gun has just fired and Ann is just leaving Pietermaritzburg. When Aleck Skhosana was asked for comment in a recent report he replied, “It’s simple, we have no comment on any and everything she says.”*
* It is worth noting that no one from ASA has made official contact with Ann since she won Comrades. There were no words of congratulations after her victory, nothing prior to (or after) the 100km World Championships team announcement and nothing formal since her public withdrawal announcement. Ann has clarified her position on the matter in a well-worded, professional letter that was emailed to Aleck Skhosana on June 30. At the time of writing there was no response from Skhosana.
As a six-year old, Ann was watching Comrades at Polly Shortts (the last and most brutal of the big five hills on the “Up” run). She saw Bruce Fordyce on his way to another victory and told her dad, “I also want to run this race”. Her father’s passing in 2007 inspired her to start running and fulfil the promise she made as a six-year old. When asked about the promise in a recent interview, Ann said, “Everyone knows once I’ve set my mind to something, it’s not going to change.” Right now ASA sees Ann as a nasty irritation. They’re hoping she goes away quietly - she won’t. Let’s hope ASA underestimate her - I’d like to see what happens.
Ann is not the kind of champion who wants sympathy or attention. She wants justice. She wants fairness. Ann wants the money that is generated by road running and road runners to be routed back into further developing the sport and its athletes. Ann wants our administrators to help develop talented athletes. She wants teams selected for international events to be well supported and looked after. Ann just wants ASA to do their job. And if ASA can’t or won’t do their job as a parent for road running, she wants them to get out of the way so that the people who are acting in in the best interests of road running can continue to grow the sport and develop South Africa’s athletes.
Ann has taken an unselfish stand for the road running community. Road running in South Africa needed a champion. Ann is our champion and she needs our support.
The author thanks Ann Ashworth for providing detailed responses to questions over several communications. All views expressed in this article are those of the author.
Massmart has indicated that they are fully supportive of the objections raised by Ann and continue to support her and the rest of the team in developing talented South African female athletes.
About the author: Stuart Mann is a compulsive marathon runner and independent writer. He loves writing about South Africa’s great races and the people he meets whilst running on his popular www.runningmann.comblog. He is active on social media (especially when his wife watches MasterChef or Grey’s Anatomy) on the handle @runningmann100.