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Fri Apr 25 10:16:14 SAST 2014

Guardians of track's holy grail on record

Archie Henderson | 02 July, 2012 06:540 Comments

IT'S in years like this when the South African Athletics Annual comes in handy. The book is a labour of love, edited these days by the polymath Riel Hauman, and becomes essential reading in an Olympic year.

This column resists the shameless plugging of any book, but the 2012 annual is a deserving exception.

It is produced by those clever people of South African Athletics Statisticians, a voluntary non-profit group founded in 1952 by Harry Beinart, Alistair Matthews and Arrie Joubert to safeguard the integrity of the sport's facts and figures.

All three were helpful mentors to a thick young rookie reporter who'd been given the athletics beat to keep him out of trouble. I covered a Two Oceans Marathon with Beinart and his good friend Charlie Savage at a time when you could follow the entire race by car. While I navigated the route, Harry and Charlie would lean out of the passenger windows and, stopwatch in hand, shout out the split-times at various points in the race. Not only did they know each runner personally, they also knew - in their heads! - many of the runners' personal bests at significant points in the race.

The endurance of the annual is a tribute to people such as Harry and Charlie.

This year's annual was published recently and among all the stats that will help you understand who's hot in an Olympic year, there is a fascinating article on the statistical evaluation of South African championships by the organisation's current president, Cobus Kok, and a remarkable story by Hauman about the Olympic marathon of 100 years ago.

Kok, the proud holder of the Northern Cape hammer record, has assessed that the SA Championships of 2002 outweighed this year's, which many of us thought was the best ever. Incidentally, his hammer record (he can't remember the distance) was achieved in the rural metropolis of Aggenys, a mining town that achieved fame in the 1970s when the Boland rugby team, travelling in an old Dakota aircraft, had to make an emergency landing there after losing its way in the mist en route to Springbok for a Currie Cup match against North West Cape.

Hauman's story on the Olympic marathon will be new to many. It is the only time in the history of the Games when a single country delivered a 1-2 finish in the marathon. Kenneth McArthur won gold for South Africa and his teammate Chris Gitsham was just under a minute behind. The athletics track in Potchefstroom is named after McArthur, whose grandson by the same name was once a good distance runner for UCT and Stellenbosch.

In that race, the Portuguese runner Francisco Lazaro collapsed and died after 30km. He had covered large parts of his body with wax to prevent sunburn. But the wax restricted the natural perspiration, leading to a serious body fluid imbalance.

At that Olympics, in Stockholm, Jim Thorpe won the decathlon and pentathlon and George S Patton took part in the modern pentathlon (a very different event). Thorpe's achievement is now impossible to repeat. A year later he was stripped of his medals for alleged professionalism. In 1982 these were posthumously restored. Patton won his medals 32 years later, leading American tanks across Nazi-occupied Europe.

The SA Athletics Annual can be ordered from ckok@safcol.co.za or mayer@fullard.co.za.

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Guardians of track's holy grail on record

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