Wesley Botton
Chief sports writer
3 minute read
1 Jun 2014
10:00 am

Fourie quitting shows up the SA anomalies

Wesley Botton

The bomb dropped by promising hurdler Lehann Fourie this week offered a fine example of all that is wrong in South African athletics.

Wesley Botton.

Fourie was on the verge of a major international breakthrough after a stunning 2012 season which included a seventh place at the London Olympics and a new national 110m hurdles record of 13.24 seconds.

One topsy-turvy campaign, however, after he struggled with injuries last year, and Fourie was forced to hang up his spikes and replace his vest and shorts with a business suit.

It’s not that he doesn’t want to run anymore, but Fourie simply had to make a choice, and with nobody paying the bills while he regained form, he was pushed off the track and into a 9-5 job.

It’s all good and well to have an Olympic medal hanging over your fireplace, but if there’s no wood to get a fire going you won’t eat.

It may seem the 27-year-old had already reached the peak of his career, but Fourie was still on the rise in an event that takes years of meticulous practice to fine-tune the technical aspects. Many of the world’s top 110m hurdlers hit their best form after the age of 30.

The problem, perhaps, is that the local athletics landscape across the various surfaces and disciplines is completely skewed.

While top road runners sign contracts with domestic clubs, which offer them the stability of monthly retainers, track athletes are not awarded the same security blankets.

If a South African runner breaks the men’s or women’s record at the Comrades Marathon tomorrow, they will pocket more than R800 000 in prize money, plus cash incentives from their sponsors.

Most track and field events in South Africa do not even offer appearance fees or prize money, and it’s impossible for any athlete to make six figures in an entire domestic season, let alone in one race.

And if an athlete like Fourie is injured, which prevents him from competing overseas, he gets nothing, not even from his foreign shoe and apparel sponsor.

The Comrades and Two Oceans marathons offer a unique hook for sponsors, as the races are televised live for a number of hours each year.

For a track athlete who spends less than 14 seconds from gun to tape, the return for sponsors is far less attractive, and the situation has been compounded by a lack of live coverage of domestic track and field events in recent seasons.

It takes no less effort, however, for someone like Fourie to prepare for a race than it does for an ultra-marathon runner, and no less hours are spent in training, particularly in a technical event like the high hurdles.

Infighting and boardroom politics aside, Athletics South Africa needs to find a way to look after the country’s athletes.

Sascoc’s Operation Excellence programme is fantastic, but it can only assist a limited number of people across a wide spectrum of sports codes.

While athletes are supported at university level, ASA must clean up its image, secure corporate funding and market its rising stars to help bridge the gap between student and senior level.

If they don’t, the country might lose more athletes like Fourie before they even approach their prime.

When that happens, it becomes clear that somebody somewhere is doing something wrong.