Whites, blacks conquer race as comrades for day

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

June 01, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG -- For South Africa, yesterday's Comrades Marathon is the New York and Boston marathons wrapped up into one. It has the tradition of Boston and the popularity of New York.

And at 55 miles it's also longer than those two 26.2-mile races put together.

With that in mind, try to decide which is crazier: that 14,000 people run the Comrades every year, or that much of the country spends its Republic Day holiday watching them do it on television.

In that way, the Comrades is like the Kentucky Derby in that as the race approaches, millions become avid fans and would-be experts of a sport they pay little attention to the rest of the year.

But it's also like the Super Bowl because it has transcended sport and become a cultural event, a multiracial parade of South Africa's diversity that causes the entire nation to stand up and cheer.

Indeed, that its appeal crosses racial lines is significant in a country where the attraction of sports, like so many things, doesn't make that leap. The blacks go for soccer, the whites for rugby. But everybody watches the Comrades.

To do that, they have to get up early. The gun goes off at 6 a.m. The race is run between the Natal cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg, uphill one year, downhill the next. This year, it was downhill, finishing in coastal Durban.

It took more than six minutes for all the runners to cross the starting line after the mayor of Pietermaritzburg fired the gun.

The race was a picture of the changes in South Africa. A German, Charly Doll, took the lead just past halfway. He was one of a contingent of top international runners, the first such group to compete in the Comrades in over 20 years, a sign of the re-emergence of the country into the international arena.

But the 39-year-old Doll was soon passed by a black South African, Theophilus Rafiri, who seemed to be headed for victory despite an awkward stride.

But as he neared Durban, he began to slow drastically. Mr. Doll kept up his steady pace and passed Mr. Rafiri within four miles of the finish and went on to win by 2 minutes, covering the 89 kilometers in 5 hours, 39 minutes and 41 seconds -- or a little more than an average of 6 minutes a mile.

The day then took on its own dramatic rhythm -- first to see who finished in the top 10, winning solid gold medals that are badges of honor in South African running, and then to watch Tilda Tearle become the first woman to finish.

Then the crucial time was 7 hours, 30 minutes. Everyone who finished under that got a silver medal and, as the deadline neared, exhausted runners tried to coax a bit more speed out of their dead legs to get that coveted token.

After that, it was time for the haggard human parade. Covering 55 hilly miles takes its toll. These people made marathon finishers look fresh by comparison.

The final deadline was the 11-hour mark, the cutoff for official finishers. Thousands who had been at the halfway mark when the winner finished staggered, limped or virtually crawled to the line as the time wound down.

When the clock struck the 11th hour, a phalanx of officials blocked the finish line, stopping a heartbroken woman who was just a few feet shy of her goal.

So where did this extraordinary popularity come from? It's always had a local appeal since 40 runners covered the distance in 1921.

A boom in the popularity of running ballooned the field in the mid-1970s, coinciding with the introduction of television to South Africa in 1976.

The first race to be covered live was in 1983. And that was just as the extraordinary career of Bruce Fordyce was taking off. He did for distance running in South Africa what Arnold Palmer did for golf in the United States, winning the Comrades nine times. People tuned in to see if he could do it again.

Mr. Fordyce, who was a television commentator for this year's race -- he's preparing for the 100-kilometer -- 62-mile -- world championship in August -- may have done the best job of summing up the race's appeal.

"For one day in the year, you get a glimpse of what South Africa could be like," he said. "Apartheid disappears. People from overseas who see the race wonder how we could have any problems, but still the following day we return to the same old rubbish."

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