Transformation Gone Wrong: The Three-Pillar System

Transformation Gone Wrong:

Unfortunately, in a country where the word transformation has assumed racial connotations, the problem with athletics in South Africa is that it really has not transformed.

To start with it must be made abundantly clear that this has nothing to do with race. Athletics, even in the old days of the South African Amateur Athletics Union (SAAAU), bucked the trend of racial exclusion. Charles Nieuwoudt uniquely insisted on athletics being open to all (at least in theory). Yes, there were racist clubs and administrators, but very quickly it became the one sport where race did not exclude anyone from, well, running a race. Apart from some field events, and possibly women’s events, the sport reflects the demographic make up of the country, from school to national level. Few, if any, other sports in South Africa can claim that.

Where Athletics South Africa did not transform was in two structural ways, and they are holding the sport back from being as big and as great as it should be.

In these two articles we will investigate the two major and fundamental ways in which Athletics has refused to transform in South Africa.

The Three-Pillar System

Firstly, despite a conscious decision in the 1990s to do away with the three-pillar system of athletes in the country, namely Cross Country, Road Running and Track & Field as separate organisations under the umbrella of a national athletics federation, Athletics South Africa never changed that mentality. The old guard of the South African Road Running Association (SARRA) clung desperately to their independence as long as they could. They perceived themselves to be the cash cows of the sport and the more business-minded (and by-and-large English speakers). Track & field was viewed as the money spenders and more conservative-minded amateurs (and mostly Afrikaners).

While at national level there was a nominal attempt to integrate all the pillars into one, at provincial level (I will return to this in a separate article, as it is a misnomer) everyone clung to the three-pillar system. In my own province, Western Province, I subsequently found out that WPRRA had secretly invested its money ‘in case unity failed’. We had the absurd situation where athletes who were selected for WP Track & Field teams for the national championships were expected (in the early 2000s) to pay R1600 to go with the team – and they were fighting to get into the team – while their counterparts in road running were actually being paid to run at national championships.

I was the chair of Western Province Track & Field for a time and was intensely frustrated with the bizarre manner in which the province was run – WPA Track & Field was struggling to pay the rent for its office at Bellville Stadium, while WPARR was rolling in cash.

Later the bank accounts for Western Province Athletics (WPA) were merged into one, but it soon became clear that not all the many accounts were in fact disclosed. While WPARR did act openly this time, there were development accounts and investments which were never accounted for (and certain people did their utmost to block any investigations when I later became president of WPA.

To this day, WPA operates as separate divisions – Track & Field’s fixtures and results are not even included on the calendar of the WPA website. Cross country, as has always been the case since before unity in the mid-1990s, is still the step-child, regarded as ‘development’ for the other two divisions, and road running still runs the show.

All other major ‘provinces’ in South Africa follow the same pattern. The small ‘provinces’ don’t even do track & field anymore, and cross country only survives because of schools.

Put simply, South Africa never bought into the concept of a single sport. In the minds of nearly all administrators, we still have the apartheid-era distinction between cross country, road running and track & field.

Even the supposedly politically astute administrators have not dragged themselves out of the apartheid era.

In short, there is no transformation. Things are as they were in the 1980s.

Why a single sport is essential.

Why should we not carry on with the three-pillar system, after all South Africa is unique is it not?

The easy answer is that it is illogical. How can you define an athlete who cross over all three divisions? If someone does 10km road running, 10km cross country and 10 000m on the track, they are the same person but having to deal with three different organising bodies which usually have their own unique rules. One athlete running the same distance, but three different sets of rules (leaving aside the obvious differences based on the surface run on).

But it is more sinister that that. Athletics is a sport where people grow empires very quickly and easily. Instead of having a seamless administration where everyone is looking after the interests of ALL athletes, the three pillar system means that even such basic things a fixtures clash.

Again, to use the WPA example, a couple of years ago WPA had its half marathon championships on the same day as the SA Track & Field Championships some 20km away. So what, you may ask, aren’t they different athletes? After all a sprinter or 1500m runner would not be racing a half marathon. Using the One-Sport approach you would ask the question differently: Are there athletes who may be affected? Would you hold a 10km championship on the same day as a half marathon championship? No. So why hold a half marathon championship on the same day as the 10 000m championship? Same athletes, same distance, just a different surface.

Then we have a further problem, with new surfaces coming into play in the same sport. Trail running is now part and parcel of Athletics (it is in the IAAF Rules), but we can’t fit it into the three-pillars. Attempts were made – a certain administrator tried to label it as cross country, but it simply isn’t. What about Mountain Running, again an IAAF discipline. It’s not trail running – it is closer to cross country, with the rules being modelled on cross country and it is not single-track running, but is not cross country either. So we just ignore it.

Who is most affected by this: The athletes. Instead of being eligible for national teams for mountain running, for example, they are excluded. They also have to navigate a mine-field of rules regarding team selection (for example). So a 10km athlete is expected to continuously race just to make provincial teams, without which they cannot go to national championships which are essential for national selection. The same athlete may well be asked to run 10 or more high-quality 10km races before they even stand the chance of running at a World Championships.

(by James Evans)