Wesley Botton

By Wesley Botton

Chief sports journalist

A national institution, the Comrades Marathon is still going strong

The 95th edition of the Comrades Marathon, a 'down' run between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, will be held next Sunday.

From my childhood, I recall two memories which served as the driving force behind the bizarre obsession I developed for long-distance running.

In 1992, Elana Meyer’s silver medal at the Barcelona Olympics and her subsequent lap of honour with Derartu Tulu is seared into my head, like a dream I’ve never forgotten.

Two years before that, however, when I was seven years old, I watched what I recall as my first memory of the sport.

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Sitting on the couch in the lounge with my family, as we always did on race day, I stared at the grainy image on our small box-shaped TV and witnessed Bruce Fordyce tearing away from thousands of other runners and coasting to victory at the Comrades Marathon.

To this day, I don’t really know what captivated me, but watching Fordyce floating uphill to the roars of delighted onlookers was perhaps my first real introduction to elite sport. At the very least, it’s the first I remember. And I loved it.

Bruce Fordyce
Bruce Fordyce crosses the finish line to win the 1990 Comrades Marathon. Picture: Gallo Images

More than three decades later, however, living in a completely different world, I wonder if the race that took such a firm grip on me in 1990 is still as relevant as it was the day it changed my life.

Back then, we were still banned from competing in international sport due to Apartheid rule, and South African athletes were limited to events within South Africa’s borders, which significantly raised the status of the country’s most popular race.

In 1990, however, there were very few foreign participants, there was no prize money for the top finishers and local athletes had few other platforms to really shine. A lot has changed.

Staying relevant

Next week, a total of 1 500 international visitors will take part, while R260 000 is on the line for the race winners (along with a R260 000 record bonus) and some potential contenders will be missing from the line-up because they’re focusing on events overseas.

Most significantly, this year’s race has attracted 15 596 entries from 45 countries – nearly 3 000 more than the 12 796 entries received in 1990 – and while the SABC has lost the rights to broadcast the race, it will be streamed live by SuperSport.

All these years later, I’m still as excited to watch things unfold on Comrades day as I was in my youth, and it seems the race remains as relevant and popular in the SA sporting landscape as it does in my life.

As much as some things will inevitably change, there is some comfort in knowing that some things stay the same.

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