Johannesburg - It’s probably not the thing to point out, what with the feel-good factor around our sprinters, but the sprinting explosion in the country can seem as though it is happening at the expense of a former stronghold - middle-distance running.
For every Wayde van Niekerk, Akani Simbine, Anaso Jobodwana and Henricho Bruintjies dominating the headlines today, there used to be Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, Hezekiel Sepeng, Johan Botha or Shadrack Hoff.
In 20-odd years, South Africa has gone from an endurance to an explosive events country.
Which begs the question: Why have middle-distance events gone from a reliable source of medals for South
Africa to barely being represented at major championships? Jean Verster - himself a former athlete whose most recent claim to fame is guiding Caster Semenya back to her winning ways - has a few ideas.
“Everything in life works in cycles. We’re not necessarily in crisis, we’re just having a downturn that will pick up again. If you look at our recent performers, André Olivier (800m) kept getting injured, Johan Cronjé (1 500m) retired and Elroy Gelant (5 000m) decided to move up to the marathon. But life works in cycles and things will definitely pick up again,” he said.
That said, Verster did find some contributing factors to why the middle-distance conveyor belt has stalled, the first of which is the insistence on only selecting athletes who are obvious medal hopes for major championships.
“In the past, we had people involved in athletics who didn’t see the bigger picture by only selecting athletes guaranteed to be in the medals. It took a lot of fighting to start selecting full teams and, through that system, we got to expose athletes to major championship competition.
“An example is Johan Cronjé. For years, he was ranked around 20th in the world and wasn’t producing, but through consistent selection, he finally came right (with a bronze medal at the Moscow World Championships in 2013). When you only select medal hopes, you miss a Cronjé.
“Rynhardt van Rensburg is a current example of that. In posting the ninth fastest time - a personal best - he was first to miss out on the Olympic 800m final in Rio (2016). He then came back and did well at the national champs the year after, but then he wasn’t selected for London because he wasn’t seen as a medallist. That’s not how you develop an athlete.”
The other contributing factor, Verster said, was a lack of fair opportunities to run given to middle-distance athletes.
“Most domestic competitions are at altitude, which can make middle-distance times five to six seconds slower and the sprints 0.17 (100m) and 0.27 (200m) seconds faster.
“I approached Athletics SA earlier this year and asked if it could hold two of its three Grand Prix meetings at sea level. It said no because the sprinters wouldn’t run as fast. What happens in that situation is that the middle-distance runners then decide to run tactically because the times will be five seconds slower anyway.”
Be that as it may, Verster - who has had to travel the length and breadth of the country in his capacity as a coach and is the father of a middle-distance running daughter - says it’s not half as gloomy as it sounds.
Having had to wade through Varsity Cup competitions, PUK University-sponsored events and national youth and junior championships, he has seen enough to convince him that there are enough competitions to hone the talent and there are enough talented athletes to make the grade.
One such talent is the Nedbank Running Club developed and Pio Mpolokeng-coached current national 800m champion Tshepo Tshite (21), who produced a massive kick to win the title at Tuks last month.
“It’s only a rough patch that we’re going through. There is enough talent in the country, especially among the juniors. Overall, there are enough competitions and huge talent that will eventually come through,” Verster said.