Johannesburg - This time last year, Athletics South Africa (ASA) was copping it for seemingly opposing its athletes’ #FillUpPotch initiative by insisting that they give the national championships, which would be held at the venue, a miss to go to the world relay championships in the Bahamas.
The issue was that the athletes, or more to the point, the sprinters, had worked out that, thanks to the fast times they were running early in the season, they had a unique opportunity to achieve something not done in the country before – produce sub-10-second and sub-20-second 100m and 200m races at the national champs.
But having bungled an opportunity to field a strong 4x100m relay team at the Rio Olympics the year before, ASA was keen not to make the same mistake by insisting that the team go to the Bahamas so they could get a qualifying time to compete in the London World Championships.
The athletes got their way in that they did fill up the stadium in Potchefstroom and delivered on their sprinting expectations, with both national short sprint titles won in times not seen in the championships before, while ASA had to shelve the idea of fielding a strong relay team again.
The basic lesson from that was that, not only were South Africa’s athletes gaining a reputation for their achievements overseas, they were also getting strong enough to prevail in the usually mindless arguments they frequently found themselves in against their essentially amateur administrators.
But then came this year’s national championships, where Akani Simbine and Clarence Munyai withdrew at different stages of the 100m and 200m races, respectively. Simbine cited a tight hamstring for his withdrawal, while Munyai’s decision raised a couple of eyebrows.
Munyai, who smashed Wayde van Niekerk’s 200m national record by 0.15sec to set the new mark at a jaw-dropping 19.69sec in the semi-finals, cried off the final because he feared he might get injured, an idea cemented by the inclement weather on the day of the title race.
The reason for his team’s premonition was that he had a history of thigh injury issues.
His coach, Hennie Kriel, explained the whole thing thus: “We’d like him to be South African champion, but the world has just opened up for him. When he joined us at [TuksSport High School] Clarence, he had a bad quadriceps issue which has never really rehabilitated.
“If we make a decision for him to run regardless of our reservations, that might be a short-term decision. But I would have liked to see how he responded to running after putting up a time like that – athletes need to get used to that kind of pressure.”
While it’s completely understandable that the decision was made with the thinking that the youngster suddenly had bigger fish to fry, there were a few questions left unanswered by the explanation.
The most obvious was that there was no actual injury to speak of, so what precaution was being taken wasn’t exactly clear.
Also, Munyai has not won a senior national title, which one would have imagined he wanted to do in an age where the prominent local athletes in that event are such luminaries as Van Niekerk, Anaso Jobodwana and Simbine.
Elsewhere in the world, particularly in the US and Kenya, athletes pride themselves on being national champions.
Better yet, the way their national champs are decided (the first three get to go to whatever major event is being held that year) is so stressful, it prepares said podium athletes for the hardships of championship running.
Also, ASA president Aleck Skhosana was castigated for unthinkingly describing the national champs as a “small meet” in the throes of his organisation’s dispute with the #FillUpPotch athletes. So skipping the final of a national championship because you have bigger fish to fry would suggest the athletes are also open to the idea of it being a small meet – as long as it suits their interests.
Most importantly, as a 20-year-old athlete, Munyai missed the opportunity of experiencing the pressure that comes with having to back up the kind of time he did in the semi-finals in a final, going through all the rounds of a championship and running in all conditions.
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